Indiana at 200 (77): Hoosier First to Die in WWI
by Andrea Neal
Although few Hoosiers know his name, James Bethel Gresham of Evansville earned a place in the history books for his role in World War I. Corporal Gresham, of the 1st Division’s 16th Infantry, was reportedly first to die in the service of the American Expeditionary Forces.
A factory worker at the time of his enlistment in the U.S. Army, Gresham symbolized thousands of Hoosiers who were willing to give all for a cause not fully understood. “He was an ordinary American, with no distinction of high birth, scholarship or social prestige,” wrote Heiman Blatt in “Sons of Men: Evansville’s War Record” published in 1920. “Only an average American; yet, his name will be transmitted to posterity as the first American soldier who made the supreme sacrifice on the battlefield.”
Indiana sent more than 130,000 soldiers to the Great War, and more than 3,000 died from battle wounds or disease. To this day, the reasons are hard to grasp. It began with a simple act of violence: the June 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. It escalated into a global battle for dominance pitting the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and their sphere of influence) against Britain, France, Russia and an alliance that came to include the United States.
President Woodrow Wilson initially refused to get involved, sticking to a policy of isolationism, or neutrality. After Germany violated a pledge not to wage submarine warfare in the North Atlantic, Wilson asked Congress for a war declaration in 1917.
Gresham was no novice when he arrived in Europe, having taken part in U.S. engagements in Mexico during the Mexican Revolution under General John J. Pershing, the same general who would lead American forces in World War I. Gresham’s company had spent two months in Gondrecourt in northeastern France training in modern trench warfare before taking a position along the French line near Bathelmont.
According to a written account by Corporal Frank Coffman, the division had mostly retired for the night, “lured on by exhaustion and a sense of safety,” when the Germans attacked in pitch dark on Nov. 3.
In “The Doughboys: The Story of the AEF,” author Laurence Stallings described the scene: “Exactly at three o’clock in the morning all hell broke loose. Enemy guns spoke in chorus, tons of metal descended heavily along the Yanks’ front, communicating trenches were plastered with mortar fire, machine guns sent their whispering streams of nickeled steel over the heads of the Doughboys in the line.”
In the hand-to-hand combat, Gresham and Privates Thomas F. Enright and Merle D. Hay were killed, seven others wounded and 11 taken prisoner. The deceased were buried on the battlefield, eulogized by French General Bordeaux as “the first soldiers of the United States Republic to fall on the soil of France for justice and liberty.”
The men were later reburied in the American Cemetery in Bathelmont. In 1921, Gresham’s remains were returned to Evansville and interred in Locust Hill Cemetery.
In 1920, the Indiana General Assembly voted to construct the Indiana World War Memorial and Plaza to remember Hoosiers’ involvement in the Great War, a mission eventually expanded to include subsequent wars as well. To the north of the memorial, a cenotaph dedicated to Gresham is surrounded by four columns topped by eagles. Fittingly, General Pershing came to Indianapolis to lay the cornerstone on July 4, 1927.
Directions: The Indiana War Memorial is at 431 N. Meridian Street, Indianapolis.