This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of our nation’s entry into World War I, a conflict that began in 1914. The involvement of thirty-two nations as combatants and the utilization of airplanes, tanks, long-range artillery, poison gas and machine guns engendered a level of carnage unimaginable in previous wars. When the conflict ended in 1918, 10 million military personnel and seven million civilians had been killed.
Most area residents are familiar with the “doughboy” statue that stands outside VFW Post 1308. Erected to honor area men who served in the war, it includes a plaque that lists the names of 27 who lost their lives. One young man, whose name is included on this plaque, is also honored by an individual commemoration displayed in his family’s church. In the sanctuary of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Alton is a wall-mounted memorial that reads, in part: “In loving memory of 1st Lieut. Elden Sprague Betts, my only son, killed in action in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in France, Oct. 9, 1918.”
Launched on Sept. 26, 1918, the objective of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive was to deprive the German army of the Sedan-Mezières Railroad, which served as its main supply route. The offensive was the bloodiest engagement in World War I for the American Expeditionary Force: 26,277 killed and 95,786 wounded.
Betts arrived in Europe on Sept. 11, 1917, just six months after the United States entered the war. He first experienced combat in January of 1918. The circumstances of Betts’ death were described in a letter dated Oct. 20, 1918 from Lt. Thomas Gibson to his mother, which is now posted on the web site of Illinois Genealogy. “About two weeks ago we went into the line again, relieving another division.” A short time later, Gibson wrote, these young men went “over the top,” which meant they charged from their trenches and began to advance toward the enemy. “We made great progress, and captured a famous hill where the French had lost so…