Flanders Field American Cemetery and an American with 36th (Ulster) Division

This post is republished to include archive material and photographs that I have rediscovered, some new information and a new image that I received as a result of the original post.

Flanders Field Memorial Chapel

Flanders Field Memorial Chapel

The visit by President Obama to Flanders Field American Cemetery and Memorial at Waregem in Belgium in March 2014 brought back memories of my own visit there a few years ago. The site of the cemetery is near where the US 91st Division attacked and captured the wooded area of Spitaals Bosschen. It is beautiful and it has a very different ‘feel’ to Commonwealth cemeteries. Well-spaced rows of white crosses surround the chapel, which stands in the centre of the six acre site. Inside the chapel, the altar and walls are marble and the furniture is of carved oak, stained to reflect the black altar. On either side are the Walls of the Missing, inscribed with the names of the 43 men who fell in Flanders and who sleep in unknown graves.[1]

I was working on Blacker’s Boys, the history of the 9th (North Irish Horse) Battalion, Princes Victoria’s (Royal Irish Fusiliers), and, after months of research, I had identified that one of the Battalion’s officers was commemorated in the memorial chapel. The man I was looking for—Lieutenant Harold Sydney (Syd) Morgan, United States Army Medical Reserve Corps—was killed in action on 12 April 1918.

Syd Morgan came from Welsh and English stock. His father, Davy, was a miner born in Pontypridd, Glamorganshire on 3 March 1851 and his mother, Ellen Matilda ‘Nellie’ Shafer, was born on 20 October that year in London. They married in Pontypridd in 1873. Their first child, Davy Shafer Morgan, was born in the second quarter of 1877 in Pontypridd and, on 20 December, the family emigrated to the United States from Liverpool. They settled in Winton, Pennsylvania, where Davy naturally found work as a miner, and he and Nellie had five more children (other children were born but did not survive)—Mabel Florence (26 June 1879), Jeannette Catherine (30 July 1882), (Paul) Victor (5 April 1885), Gwladys M (14 July 1888), and Harold Sydney ‘Syd’, the youngest, born on 2 May 1890.

The Morgan Family

The Morgan Family

In 1901, Nellie died and the family uprooted and moved to Coronado, California, where Syd Morgan was raised by his older sisters.[2] He graduated from high school in San Diego in 1908 and went on to Stanford University (Phi Delta Theta), where he graduated in 1912. In 1911 his father had died and that year he began his medical studies at Stanford. In the summer of 1914, he served as an assistant on the Hospital Ship Strathcona, which provided medical care at the remote communities in Labrador and northern Newfoundland. His medical studies were completed at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, from which he graduated as a doctor in 1915. Syd Morgan joined the house staff at Bellevue Hospital, New York on 1 January 1916. In the memorial book subsequently compiled by Bellevue Hospital, Syd Morgan was described as …a great addition to any circle; he possessed a buoyancy of spirits and an equanimity of temper that altogether fitted him for the company he was now in. Moreover he was large, of athletic build, capable of much endurance. He was a great tennis player—supreme on the courts at Bellevue and tennis champion at Johns Hopkins, Stanford and at high school.[3]

Lieutenant Harold Sydney Morgan, United States Army Medical Reserve Corps

Lieutenant Harold Sydney Morgan, United States Army Medical Reserve Corps

The United States entered the war on 6 April 1917 and Syd Morgan was commissioned into the United States Army Medical Reserve Corps as a Lieutenant on 9 August. He sailed from New York on the SS Cedric—a former White Star liner, built at Harland & Wolff in Belfast—on 29 September 1917, and reported for duty at American Base Hospital No. 2 (Presbyterian Hospital, New York City) at Etretat on 17 October. This base hospital had taken over the roll of No. 1 General Hospital and supported the British Expeditionary Force for the remainder of the war. In November 1917 Syd Morgan was posted with two other Army Medical Reserve Corps doctors to 36th (Ulster) Division.[4]

Their departure and early time with the Ulster Division is documented in Cheerio!,[5] the memoir of Major Harold M. Hays—which he dedicated to Syd Morgan. Hays served with 110th Field Ambulance and, for a short time in February 1918, as the medical officer of 2nd Royal Irish Rifles. He was then posted to No 1 General Hospital at Etretat on 25 February 1918 and subsequently to the American Expeditionary Force base hospital at Hyères in southern France.

Harold Hays, at the time a captain, Syd Morgan and 1st Lieutenant Cook[6] joined the Ulster Division just as its involvement in the Battle of Cambrai was drawing to a close. Hays and Morgan joined 110th Field Ambulance on 25 November 1917, and Cook joined 108th Field Ambulance the same day. Having had their first experience of treating battlefield casualties, Hays and Morgan moved to the rear with 110th Field Ambulance when the Ulster Division was withdrawn from the attack on 26/27 November. Their relief was short-lived, however, and they were rushed forward again as the German army counter-attacked. 36th (Ulster) Division came under command III Corps on 3 December and the next day Syd Morgan was detached to 16th Field Ambulance in 6th Division, where he worked assisting another medical officer in a dugout for 48 hours. By 15/16 December 36th (Ulster) Division was exhausted and its units, including 110th Field Ambulance, were withdrawn from the line.

In late January 1918, Syd Morgan joined the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers in 108th Brigade as the battalion medical officer. 36th (Ulster) Division was now holding the defensive zones south-west of St Quentin. On 19 March, in his last letter to Harold Hays, he wrote:

Ah—your Majority has arrived at last. I was mighty glad to hear of it, for certainly you should have had it long ago. Dave told me in a recent letter that you had withdrawn from the 2-bar class. Knowing that you were spending leave in Cannes, the enclosed clipping from the Mail caught my eye, and I was interested to see your name, together with those of Stevens and Cassamajor. I’m sure you’re having one wonderful bit of sport down there, and I must admit I’d much like to be in the crowd. Dave and Art and I expected to put in a week or so of leave there. Cannes is a regular Monte Carlo, they say.

As it happens, I am still with the worthy 9th, in reserve right now at Grand Seracourt (sic). Our tours in the line have been simple enough lately and casualties rare. It has been good sport, however, for the weather recently has been absolutely perfect, giving wonderful observation. I’ve seen plenty of Boche and have missed his machine-gun bullets successfully. One night the C.O. and I went all around the line about twelve o’clock, going out into the saps and wandering about in No-man’s Land. Incidentally a machine-gun turned near us and d___ near cut the grass between our legs. The Boche is quiet these days, however, and he hardly replies at all to the rather heavy strafing he gets night and day. One thing certain now is our guns are not afraid to speak. The best sight I have seen recently was watching the tremendous shell of a 12-inch howitzer flying off into space. It is very remarkable how one can see the shell for fully a minute or two from the moment it leaves the muzzle until it goes out of view.

I hope I may see you before long as I have applied for leave, going to England by way of Havre, stopping a day in Etretat if I can arrange it O.K. I’d much like to see these poor unlucky devils who had to stay around the Base while we were having the only real sport in the war—at the front. You and I certainly had it on the rest of the crowd. I applied for leave yesterday, and if it goes through all right I expect to be in Etretat in a couple of days. I surely hope so. My very best to you.[7]

The ‘Boche’ were not quiet for much longer. On 21 March 1918 the first attack of the German spring offensive—the Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser’s Battle)—swept all before it and 36th (Ulster) Division fought a withdrawal action over a period of seven days from St Quentin to Erches. In this most heroic series of actions, the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers suffered 522 officers and men killed, wounded and captured. For his gallantry during this period Syd Morgan was awarded the Military Cross—one of 173 such awards to medical officers from the United States.[8] His citation stated:[9]

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during the retirement from Grand Seraucourt on the morning of March 22nd. This officer was retiring behind the rearguard, and on approaching Artemps was told that some wounded were still lying in Grand Seraucourt. Although he knew that the enemy was already on the outskirts of the village he returned at once with some stretcher bearers and succeeded in bringing out the wounded. He thus at the commencement of the operations set a splendid example to his stretcher bearers of devotion and courage.

He would not know of his award, which was not published until later in 1918.

Margaret Sanborn

Margaret Sanborn

Having been withdrawn from the line on the night of 27 March, the Ulster Division was moved north to Ypres, where it spent the first week of April refitting and absorbing reinforcements. Syd Morgan wrote home on 3 April to his friend, Margaret Sanborn:[10]

Possibly at the present time in far away California you are reading all about the great German offensive on the western front and maybe wondering about what part I saw of it all and where I have been pushed about in that time. Well, Margaret, it certainly has been an active time and frankly enough, I’ve seen a bit of warfare and looking back upon the last couple weeks, I would take nothing for the experiences I’ve had. As it happened, my battalion was well in the center of things at the start and remained so for some time. To think of it now, it is sort of a blurred dream and so many things have taken place. It was a wild adventure sure enough and a fact that for five days I had no opportunity to sleep more than about four hours in all, it shows that there was plenty going on. Some quite funny things took place and when I think of it, I indeed am absolutely lucky I’m not residing in Germany today. Karlsruhe escaped the privilege. Warfare during this period had become quite open in nature, not like the old trench fighting, and certainly my place gave me full opportunity to be a first hand eye witness. I can’t say too much as to what actually happened but there was plenty. I assure you we are now away from the war and one could not tell a war was going on anywhere by the quiet life in this little French cottage. Our three days have been a luxury and to sit down once again to a table to have good meals and to sleep full nights in a curtain bed have been the keenest joy possible. I saw a lot of American doctors yesterday and quite a few US nurses, the first American girls I have seen since November. That doesn’t sound like much. It was a big treat after seeing nothing but French and for the most of the time nothing but British soldiers. We are leaving this village again tonight for somewhere else in France. Wherever that may be, I can’t tell you.

I hope you are well, Margaret, and that the family and all are very happy and enjoying life a much as I. I am indeed having a splendid time of it always and have no regrets whatever.

While most of the Division was concentrated to the north of the ruined town, 108th Brigade was detached to 19th (Western) Division to act as the reserve for II Corps and on 10 April it took up a position south-west of Ypres. Here the remnants of 108th Brigade would meet the second phase of the German offensive—Operation Georgette. The 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers were deployed into the line at the Kemmel defences at Lindenhoek Corner, just east of the hill on the Kemmel-Neuve Eglise Road. There was no time to settle here due to the pressure on the line from the renewed German offensive and 108th Brigade was hurried farther forward. By 7.00am on 11 April 108th Brigade was in position on the Wulverghem-Messines Road (see map). 12th Royal Irish Rifles had deployed onto the Wulverghem-Spanbroekmolen Ridge with 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers to the north of the Wulverghem-Messines Road and on the right of the South African Brigade (actually little more than a South African battalion reinforced with a battalion from each of 108th Brigade and 56th Brigade). The 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers was in support farther south between the road and the River Douve, and the 9th‘s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Philip Kelly, took command of this sub-sector from the battalion headquarters in Stinking Farm.

Both Irish Fusilier battalions suffered intensive shelling throughout that night; it was particularly heavy on the ridge itself. At 3.30pm the enemy attacked in strength. The fighting was fierce and the men in the forward trenches were pressed back but a spirited counter-attack by the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers and the South Africans restored the line. That evening the bombardment began again. The troops on the left of the South Africans were pushed back and Hill 63 to the south was captured, opening the flanks of 108th Brigade to heavy machine-gun fire. The situation was grave and, to avoid losing more men, 108th Brigade was pulled back and the front pivoted around 9th Division, which was firm in Wytschaete in the north of the sector. 12th Royal Irish Rifles remained on the Wulverghem/Spanbroekmolen Ridge and 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers moved back towards Wulverghem with the much depleted 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers farther to the rear in support.

At 6.40pm on 12 April, as dusk fell on another day spent under heavy shellfire, the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers were attacked from La Petite Douve Farm, where they had seen the enemy massing. The fierce German assault drove in the left flank but the Commanding Officer ordered an immediate counter-attack by the reserve company. Lieutenant Hamilton and the men of B Company rose from their trenches and attacked with a small party from 12th Royal Irish Rifles. The enemy were sweeping the road with machine-gun fire and there was a number of casualties immediately.

Dispositions of the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers on 11 and 12 April 1918

Dispositions of the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers on 11 and 12 April 1918

It was during the fighting on the afternoon of 12 April that Syd Morgan was killed. He was tending to the wounded with two stretcher-bearers when he was hit on the leg. As he was being placed on a stretcher he was killed by an exploding shell, which also injured one of the men with him. He was buried nearby, north of the Wulvergham-Messines Road, on the outskirts of Wulverghem.

Sometime after his death, his sisters received a letter from an officer in the Battalion who wrote of his death and provided a rough sketch map that showed where he had been buried. On 30 January 1922, Gwladys and Jeanette applied for their passports, specifically stating on the applications that they were travelling to Belgium to find their brother’s grave. They travelled to Southampton from New York as 2nd Class passengers on board RMS Mauretania, arriving on 24 July 1922. Their search proved fruitless—the area of his burial had been searched and the battlefield graves cleared in late-1919. The sisters returned to the United States on 27 January 1923 on the RMS Berengaria.

There is some evidence to indicate that Syd Morgan’s body may have been exhumed and taken to Flanders Field American Cemetery during the period of cemetery concentration after the war, but positive identification proved impossible. Inexplicably, of the 39 men of the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers killed in action on 11 and 12 April 1918, only one lies in a marked grave; 37 are commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial and Syd Morgan is commemorated in the Flanders Field Memorial Chapel. He is also commemorated in the Honor Roll of Stanford University and in the Memorial Hall, dedicated in 1937 to the students of the university who died during the First World War, and on the City of San Diego and San Diego County Memorial Roll.[11]

Acknowledgments:
Maura Anderson at Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections, for the photograph of Margaret Sanborn.
Patty Mackey & Patrick Lernout, for the photographs of Syd Morgan and the information about his family.
Daniel Mansdoerfer, for the photograph of the Presidential Certificate.

Sources:
Burrows, A R. (1925). The 1st Battalion The Faugh-a-Ballaghs in the Great War. Aldershot: Gale & Polden.
Carlisle, R J. (1922). A Seven Years’ Record of The Society of Alumni of Bellevue Hospital 1915 to 1921. New York: The Society of Alumni of Bellevue Hospital.
Hays, H M. (1919). Cheerio! New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Metcalfe, N P. (2012) Blacker’s Boys. Timberland: N P Metcalfe.
Rauer, M. (Ed Sanders, M). Yanks In The King’s Forces: American Physicians Serving With The British Expeditionary Force During World War 1. U.S. Army Medical Department, Office of Medical History.
War Department. (1923). Annual Report Of The Secretary Of War To The President War Department Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1923. pp 162-174. Washington: Government Printing Office.
Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Website


1. (Back) The names of the missing are listed here.
2. (Back) Davy junior became an electrical engineer and, like their brother, Gwladys and Mabel became doctors (osteopaths)—Gwladys also wrote children’s books and was a suffragette; Mabel became the President of the Business and Professional Women’s Club in San Diego. Jeanette was a librarian; she was the Chief Librarian for the San Diego City Schools. Victor began to study to become an engineer but became a banker.
3. (Back) Carlisle, R J. (1922). A Seven Years’ Record of The Society of Alumni of Bellevue Hospital 1915 to 1921. New York: The Society of Alumni of Bellevue Hospital.
4. (Back) This was a common practice; in response to a request from the United Kingdom for additional medical personnel and in order to provide the greatest experience to the medical officers of the American Expeditionary Force they were attached to British and Commonwealth hospitals and field ambulances, and as unit medical officers. The first American unit to arrive in France, in May 1917, was a base hospital and the first American casualty, in July 1917, was a medical officer. Yanks In The King’s Forces is worth reading and contains excellent photographs.
5. (Back) Hays, H M. (1919). Cheerio! New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
6. (Back) I have not been able to identify this officer. Any assistance in doing so would be appreciated.
7. (Back) Hays. Op. Cit.
8. (Back) Rauer, M. (Ed Sanders, M). Yanks In The King’s Forces: American Physicians Serving With The British Expeditionary Force During World War 1. p . U.S. Army Medical Department, Office of Medical History. A total of 323 awards of the Military Cross were made to personnel from the Unites States—see: War Department. (1923). Annual Report Of The Secretary Of War To The President War Department Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1923. pp 162-174. Washington: Government Printing Office.
9. (Back) Carlisle. Op. Cit.
10. (Back) Margaret Sanborn was born at Redlands, California on 18 February 1891, the daughter of a doctor. Her brother, Tom, was a friend of Syd Morgan’s, with whom he attended Stanford University. Margaret is believed to have been Syd’s ‘sweetheart’. Margaret Sanborn married Harvey Elgin Hall in 1945. She died on 3 February 1965.
11. (Back) The record of Stanford University in the war, which includes the Honor Roll and photographs of those who died, may be found in the yearbook of 1920. See: Victory Quad of the 1920 Class. (1920). The Quad. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

4 thoughts on “Flanders Field American Cemetery and an American with 36th (Ulster) Division

  1. Paul Grose QGM

    Very interesting Nick, my great uncle was killed at the Somme, I do have the exact details obtained with the help of a Col from 11 EOD ( prev CO ); Lt Paul O’Kane 2 Royal Ulster Rifles killed Mar 1918 – I have his medals and a photo. Terrible but it seems nobody else on my maternal side was interested!

    Reply
    1. Nick Metcalfe Post author

      Hello Paul, nice to hear from you. The mention of 2 R Ir Rif caught my attention (the Royal Ulster Rifles weren’t named until 1921) – my great-great uncle served with the Bn as a Sergeant, his story will feature in the blog early next year. I don’t think that Paul O’Kane was killed serving with the 2nd Bn, however. He is recorded in James Taylor’s history of the 1st Bn as an officer of that Bn attached to 107th Trench Mortar Battery. I could check further if you’d like.

      Reply
      1. Paul Grose QGM

        Yes I’d appreciate that Nick I probably picked up misinformation along the way. I have his medals, my father’s and mine and will try to put together a little potted military history for my descendants ! My father was a maj in the 2/4 Gurkhas and then Royal Northumberland Fusilers, already contacted their respective record offices . Intending buying your book shortly !
        Regards
        Paul

        Reply

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