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At Baltimore Cemetery, tombstones recall an important World War I battle that took a local toll

A limestone statue of a World War I warrior stands on high ground at Baltimore Cemetery.

It’s a memorial to Otto C. Phillips, a private who was killed in action 100 years ago during a little recalled battle.

The Battle of Montfaucon in Northeast France, Sept. 26-28, 1918, was one of the bloodiest sieges in the Meuse-Argonne Campaign, and contributed to the war’s end some six weeks later. Montfaucon was a well-defended German fortification and observation point, and military historians say more than 26,000 lost their lives in the campaign to capture it.

In peacetime Phillips, 26, had lived on Monument Street, a spot not far from his grave behind the stone walls in the East Baltimore cemetery at Rose Street and North Avenue.

A short walk away are the remains of two other Baltimoreans who lost their lives in the hectic hours before and after Phillips’ death — James F. Tracy, 21, who lived on Braddish Avenue, and Harry E. Forrest, 28, of Evergreen Terrace. The two are interred in adjoining graves and share a common granite tombstone; both were called heroes and cited for their gallantry at Montfaucon.

The battle for the “Hill of the Falcons” was waged by the 313th Infantry, a unit colloquially known as Baltimore’s Own.

Considered by some historians to have been poorly trained for the combat they would face, the 313th was composed of Baltimoreans as well as men from Western Maryland and Pennsylvania. The unit was sent into combat as the American Expeditionary Force assisted battered French and British forces that had been fighting the German Army since 1914.

A century later, the conflict is remembered at an American Legion post on Canton’s Fleet Street that bears the Montfaucon name. There’s also an Argonne Drive in Northeast Baltimore, another reference to the campaign, and a tribute at the city’s War Memorial.

Yet perhaps the most poignant Montfaucon remembrances are scattered in cemetery headstones and monuments — here and elsewhere — that honor those who gave their lives.

Howard E. Crispens, 25, from Clement Street in Federal Hill, rests at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France. John Harrison Lambert, 29, who lived on Bentalou Street, rests at Western Cemetery on Edmondson Avenue. William Price Shamleffer, 23, who lived on Caroline Street, is interred at Green Mount Cemetery.

A 28-year-old African-American private, Frank Pierce of Druid Hill Avenue, died a few days after the battle on Oct. 5, 1918. His burial site could not be determined.

The Maryland War Records Commission reported that there were 19,902 white members of the Army from the state and 5,937 African-Americans who participated in World War I.

Of those who served, 1,752 Marylanders died in the conflict.

Baltimoreans who enlisted or were drafted in 1917 were typically trained at what was then called Camp Meade in Anne Arundel County, and quartered in hastily constructed wood barracks. Some spent the summer in tents on fields.

Those in the 313th sailed to Brest, France, on the steamship Leviathan, which had been converted to a troop carrier. They soon took the place of fatigued French troops and were sent to the battle trenches.

"During the night a mist had settled over the valley. The top of Montfaucon, with its tall church tower still undemolished by shell fire, was shrouded in grey veils of fog,” wrote The Sun’s Raymond Tompkins is his account of the war. “[The 313th] got to the foot of the hill, and as they started up the sun burst through the clouds, flooding the valleys and mountains with a shimmering, misty radiance. And at the same moment showers of hand grenades and bursts of machine-gun bullets came down upon them.”

Three friends from Southwest Baltimore, Walter Rogers, Henry Alt and Harry Rechner, had enlisted about the same time.

“They went to school together, played together and sailed to France together,” said a news story in The Sun in 1918. All three died at Montfaucon, “two on the same day and the other a day later.”

The article, entitled “Chums Fall in Battle,” quoted Rechner’s mother: “He was all I had...”

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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