Charles Avery’s name doesn’t appear on the The Star’s World War I service plaque honoring employees who went Over There.
That’s a puzzle, given the distinction of the former Star reporter’s actions as one of the approximately 3,500 soldiers who became the first “doughboys” to enter the fight against Germany on May 28, 1918.
That’s the day they left their trenches and, at terrible cost, took the hilltop French village of Cantigny from German forces.
The initial victory was a big deal then — the first victory on the Western Front by American ground troops — and it remains so today. The effort now is considered by historians to be the first combat operation by the modern U.S. Army, featuring coordinated efforts by troops supported by tanks, aircraft and artillery.
But what also distinguishes “First Over There: The Attack on Cantigny, America’s First Battle of World War I,” is how author Matthew Davenport, a Sullivan, Mo., native, has told the story from the ground up, using surviving letters, diaries and memoirs of soldiers in the trenches.
Those sources yielded details about Avery, an Emporia, Kan., resident who left The Star about 14 months before the Cantigny battle.
A lieutenant, Avery led a rifle company assigned to participate in the first wave of the scheduled American attack.
But the morning before, 50 German soldiers attacked Avery’s platoon, supported by artillery. An explosion from an artillery shell left Avery buried under several feet of earth, where he stayed for three hours before his men dug him out.
He survived, but many comrades did not.
They found one sergeant cut in half. They found a private with only a couple of minor scratches — but dead nevertheless. His friends concluded the mere concussion of a detonating artillery shell had been enough to kill him. Others saw a comrade go down at a certain spot but no body was ever found.
Davenport discovered these details in burial records on file at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.
After the war’s conclusion, military officials went to great lengths to learn how soldiers died.
“They got correspondence from soldiers not just saying where their friends died, but also including hand-drawn maps and sometimes what their friends’ last words had been,” said Davenport, today a North Carolina lawyer and veteran of the U.S. Army Reserve.
Avery returned to The Star after the war, Davenport said, this time selling advertising, and went on to a long career in sales before dying in Omaha, Neb., in 1953. One of Avery’s three daughters told Davenport in a 2013 interview that her father never spoke of his war experiences. Maybe that’s why his name isn’t on The Star’s plaque.
Avery was among approximately 20 soldiers whose post-war paths Davenport followed. One committed suicide. Others exhibited traces of shell shock, or what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder.
Others went on with their lives without apparent incident.
“They each had their own journey, their own reactions to their experience,” Davenport said.
To learn more, go to FirstOverThere.com.