Saturday, June 16, 2012

KILLED IN ACTION - Philip Comfort Starr

As you may have guessed from reading this blog, I am a student of history.  I was a History major in college and my area of particular expertise was US History from the end of the Civil War to the start of the Great Depression - or roughly 1865-1929.  Because of my fondness for that era, I have always been fascinated by World War I.  It is hard to imagine a war that wiped out almost an entire generation of young British men, but that was the case with World War I - or as they used to call it "The Great War".  The war started in 1914 after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo.  The United States did not enter the war until April 6, 1917, and the war ended on November 11, 1918.  Nonetheless, the United States lost 117,465 men and women over those nineteen months.

As horrible as the United States' losses were, they pale in comparison to the 1,226,597 casualties from the British Empire.  The total dead from all sides in the war was a staggering 16,563,868.

World War I is often called "The Forgotten War" today as it is overshadowed by the heroics of the men and women who fought World War II.  It is my contention that if the World War II generation is "The Greatest Generation" it is only because the groundwork was laid by those who fought The Great War.

Few people today are aware that many brave men could not wait until the US entered the war, and enlisted in the military service of one of the Allied nations.  Although most of the early enlistees were pilots, there were men on the ground who signed up as well.  This is the story of one who enlisted but never came back:  PHILIP COMFORT STARR.

Philip Comfort Starr

Philip Comfort Starr was born January 28, 1890 in Chicago to noted attorney Merritt Starr and his wife Leila.

He joined his older sister Winifred who was born three years before him.  The Starr family's blood was very "blue".  Philip is a direct descendant of Dr. Comfort Starr who came to the US from England in 1635, and Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island.  The Starrs were American aristocracy.

Starr Family Monument in Rosehill Cemetery, Chicago

Philip Starr had his first schooling, beyond the primary grades, at New Trier High School.  In a summary of his school and college life prepared by Judge Thomas Taylor  (Harvard,  LL.B. 1885) it  is recorded that  he attended next the Thacher School in the Ojai  Valley, California, where he became strong  and  hardened  physically, and grew to more than six feet in height.  After his death  Mr. Thacher wrote of him:   "His name stands  on  the  tablet  in the parlor as the  best  horseman  and  best  shot  in the  School."  Two yeaThe census shows that the Starr family lived on Warwick Road in Winnetka, one of the upper-class suburbs north of Chicago on the shores of Lake Michiganrs in California were followed by one year at the Milton Academy, Milton, Massachusetts, where he made up his mind to pursue engineering and studied mathematics with special zeal.  

From Milton he entered Cornell University, where he joined the Sigma Phi fraternity, and was a member of the acclaimed Class of 1913, who lost so many of their number in the Great War.  He then went on to Harvard for further study with advanced standing in mathematics, and graduated from there as a member of the Class of 1914.

He had played football at Milton, and at Harvard became a member of the second team.   But neither study nor athletics  appealed to him so strongly as engineering, and when he received an offer of a position in an engineering firm after  his time at  Cambridge,  he accepted  it, and worked for a year in an office.  The longing for an outdoor life then became so strong that he turned to scientific farming as a profession.

"The mental and spiritual development of manhood," his father  wrote soon after his death,  "came  rapidly  in the last three  years.  The call of the great war came to him before it did to any  of us."   Anticipating  that  his family would oppose his wish to bear a personal part  in the struggle, he left home while his parents,  with whom he was staying,  were absent  over Saturday  and Sunday, June  12 and 13, 1916, and  enlisted  as a  private  in  the 70th  Battery,  Canadian  Field  Artillery,  at  Toronto  on June 15.  Then he wrote home:

"I knew I had to go to make myself better.  I had to go because it has been coming up before me ever since a year ago.  I mean the war, my responsibility, the place where I ought to be, the chance I was losing.  It knocked the deuce out of my work and everything else.  When your job comes up, keeps pounding at the door for over a year, you might as well be business-like and go and do it.  I'11 have the chance to do the unselfish thing for once."

Another letter written while his training in Canada was still in progress contains a passage testifying to the reality of the faith  that  Philip Starr  expressed when he became a member of the Union Evangelical Church of Kenilworth as a boy of seventeen.   He was writing of the camp services he attended,  and said:

We sing hymns, we say over always the Ninety-first Psalm.
. . . After a while you know that it doesn't mean that you won't be hit by a German shell.  You come to feel that the important thing is to "dwell in the secret place of the Most High," no matter what comes.

Starr's training for service at the front lasted a year and a half.  Nearly all of the first was spent in Canada where he was promoted a gunner, bombardier, corporal, sergeant, and after four months in the Royal Artillery Officers' School at Kingston was commissioned lieutenant, March 10, 1917. This was followed by a course in military engineering at the University of Toronto.   On June 1 he sailed for England, recommended as a military  engineer, and on July 1 was admitted  to the Royal School of Military Engineers at Chatham.  On October 1 he graduated and was gazetted lieutenant of Royal Engineers, with commission antedated  to July 1, 1917.  From October 8 to December 14 he  was at  the  Aldershot  Training  Camp, except for the time in October when he made a tour of England with the Mounted Engineers.  Visiting the universities and northern towns, and Canterbury and Ashford, where he found the family headstones from the 1600s.  Throughout this period of English training he made an admirable record. There is, however, a note of relief at its completion in the cable message he sent to his family on  December 16:

"Arrive France fifteenth.   Soon all address care B. E. F. On the job at last."

Starr's service at  the  front,  after  this  long  period of training, lasted  but  little  more than  two months,  for he was killed  near  Ypres,  February  20, 1918.   Two of his letters  home  reflect  his   experiences  with  the Royal Engineers:

37th Div., B.E.F., France
January 1, 1918
Dear Father:

I had  the  job of conducting a small draft  of reinforcements for the infantry  from a base-rest or training  camp  to the rail head.  This was a good thing for breaking me in after a week's freezing discomfort at the base.   You had the job of looking after the men, their rations, their kits, your own kit, and yourself at the points of entrainment and detrainment. You learn a good deal about the army transportation methods in this way and get some conception of what the various lines of communication service are and where those in charge are to be found.

I finally got the draft to its destination and its various component parts  (batches of men from three different battalions) were dispatched  in several directions.   I then settled  down to replacing my sleeping valise and some toilet articles which had been lost in the shuffle of detrainment  and arranged to have the lost articles sent on to me if found.  In the course of the various short side trips, I  had to make at the end of the journey to deliver the rolls of the parties of men I had brought  with me, I found out  where my unit was located.   Putting  my kit into  a motor lorry I went in quest  of the  way to my unit.   Arrived there noon December 31.  The O. C. of the Company, Captain Horsfield, a young regular, is a very keen young man and knows his  job very well.  A young Canadian  named  Mitchell,  from Toronto, is the Second in Command, and looks after the horses, lines, and transport.    The O. C. took me out  to see the works today and showed me the jobs I  would be on for the next week. We had a shell drop near us which was a good send-off for the first morning.  Broke me in to the philosophy of discipline and shelling.  You know you are really doing a bit of fortification  which is important  in the big scheme of things though it may seem very trivial and  the effect of your work may not  be felt for weeks. I couldn't have struck  a better  first day or better O. C. to break me in.

There is a very nice little fellow from Johannesburg, South Africa, (mining engineer) whose work I will be completing this next  week.   I have  to finish a  screen for a  trench  tramway, deepen a trench and replace the A frame supports for the sides and  the corrugated  iron and expanded metal revetment.   The South  African's  name is Jardine.   He  has helped me a  great deal by answering my innumerable questions.  The O. C. is a young fellow, only a Captain  (the O. C. of a Field Company is usually a Major, one rank higher) and has designed one of the details  of trench  revetment,  using the  pickets and  expanded metal and thin corrugated iron, all of which are available continually.
Yours, PHIL.

P. S.  Send some cake, phonograph records, a book or two on concrete construction, some cigars, Londres shape, for the mess.  A box is very thankfully  received here.

154th Field Co., R.E., 37th Division B.E.F.
February 3, 1918 
Dear Papa:

Mamma's cable was a fine warming thing to get.  I was just recovering from four days in bed with influenza.  I arrived at my unit nine days before they  were to go back 15 miles or so for their month of rest.

They  had  been at  work in the  line on  different  sectors of a 10 mile front  since July.   A Field Company  usually  has a brigade front  (that  is S or 4 battalions)  to look after, to site trenches and wire in case of an advance, as well as any special machine gun emplacements, etc.

I was given a section (four sections to a Field Company) as soon as I arrived.  This is supposed to be rather  a stiff thing to hand out  to anybody on first arriving in the line I was given the job of finishing a bit of screening for a trench tramway  (18 inch gauge light hand-car railway, 6 men or a mule sometimes used to take the cars up to a forward R. E. dump about a thousand yards behind the front line).  I was lucky in getting through the job without  any serious shelling.  I mentioned in my first letter  having a 4-inch high explosive shell drop 20 feet away when my O.C. was showing me round, and it was on this job that it happened.  I naturally expected a daily attention  by the Boche, but for four days he left that bit of screen alone while we were on it, and put a dozen or two over on another  piece which lies a few hundred  yards away.  We were lucky enough to finish it before the snow came and showed it up.

I finished out  the last few days on odd  jobs of deepening a trench  and  putting  some finishing touches on some dug-outs. In a R. E. section you have a variety of tradesmen available; there are 87 men in a section, two or three carpenters, three masons,  plumbers,  electricians,  blacksmiths, etc.  We  were ready to move and the transports, about twelve four-horse vehicles, were ready to move back a day ahead of the men of the company, who were to travel by rail.  I was to have gone with the Second in Command in charge of the transports to help get things settled in our billets at several French farms which had been assigned to us. I came down with a bit of temperature, so our Medical Officer put me in the hands of the nearest Field Ambulance. I went through to a Casualty Clearing Station ten miles back, spent the night there, and was sent on by hospital train to a hospital on the coast.

I had four or five days in bed with a bit of a head.  It was very comfortable.  There  was a  fellow from Durban,  South Africa, who had been with one of the English Cavalry battalions called the Yeomanry.  He described being just behind the last wave of an infantry advance with his troop of cavalry.  They had to come over the top of a hill and German observers could see them.  They were in sight of the breaking-through point.  The Infantry  didn't  manage to  make the break so they sat there, as  he said, "like  fools in full  view on  their  horses."  Finally they decided to retreat.  They got well started, and the Boche put down a "box barrage,'' an expressive term.  He then began to search the box with a second creeping barrage, the system of this war.  They dodged this creeping barrage by a grisly sort of checker game.  Then they found a hole in the box.

We are billeted in three farm houses which adjoin a quaint little  chateau with finely laid out  grounds, about  ten  acres, groves of trees with rides of rough lawn stretching out in three directions from the house. The country is so low that they have to fill in these strips of rough lawn to keep them dry.  The tone of our mess (nine officers counting myself) is the best and quite heartwarming. There isn't  a selfish or filthy note in  any of them....

I may be taking charge of the transport and nominal "Second in Command" or Captain's  job (Transport Officer).  I had a very valuable experience this noon at trying to save two horses which I found hitched to a wagon and standing in a canal between a barge and  the banks with an admiring but  helpless audience of some fifty men about.  I lost one of them, drowned, but  got  the  other  out  with  the  help  of an  old  veteran officer who came  up later.  I won't  lose one again  in  just  that place.  They weren't our horses.  I was going home from this town and saw them in passing.  I know practically, and finally, just what to do in such a case again.  All it was, it was only very bad luck and  a second's wrong decision, which lost the one.  One of the horses was in up to his neck, five feet of water, and  the other, half unharnessed, kicked  him  under when we had  him almost out if we had only known it.

I am taking the  transport in moving up to our new job on a defensive  line.  We have finished our  three weeks back  in rest and  training; and  the last  week has been a very happy one for me.  Mamma's cable  was wonderful  to get.  I have been very selfish in not writing.  I have been attempting to study Civil Engineering, Calculus, and Bookkeeping at odd times, and have been very dull gray and  pestered  about  the future.  I decided I may as well try and get a ground-work job of Engineering and some idea of accounting, and  then  try for a  job after  the  war.  I seem to have spent an unsurpassed time without  getting fitted to hold down a job.  There  is a great deal of bluff in the army; and you do learn self-reliance,  quick thinking, and the art of tackling unknown matters with a clear head.

Love to all.  Tell them  I will write to every one of the family and all friends and relatives.

When this reaches you we will probably be doing quite hum­drum safe work and for a month after.

Your son,

On February 25th the Secretary of the British War Office announced  by  cable  to  Lieutenant   Starr's   family  his death in action on February  20.  This was followed by a letter, dated  February 23, from his Commanding Officer:

154th Field Company, B.E.F.
As your  son's  Commanding Officer, I write to break some dreadful news to you.  Your son and I were doing work together in the front  line on the night of the 20th inst.  We had about half finished our tour when we were fired upon as we crossed some wire.  We of course fell flat but the second and third shots passed  through Starr's helmet  and  killed  him.  He  did  not suffer at all, I believe.  It was all so sudden.  I got his body back and  he was buried in a cemetery with military honours and I will erect a cross over his grave.  The cemetery is known as the Bedford House Cemetery and lies on the side of the road St. Eloi, Ypres, about a mile from Ypres due south.

All his belongings are being packed up and will be checked by me and dispatched  to you.  They  may take some time to arrive.

I cannot say how much we felt his death or how sorry I feel for you, but  please accept  my greatest sympathy.   If there is anything else I can do, please let me know it and I will do my best.

It was only the second or third  time he had been right up the line.

Yours sincerely,
Major, R.E.

Another officer of his command wrote:

He was up in the line with a section in January and showed considerable nerve and  fearlessness.  During  the  short  period of training he showed considerable promise and was conspicuous for his keenness in entering into the men's sports and games.

The circumstances of his death were particularly sad and the sympathy of all Starr's comrades in  the  division is with  his people in their loss.  His was a most promising career, in fact he was quite the best of a good class of officers who were under me at  Aldershot last December, so  I should like to specially add my personal sympathy to the deep feelings of those who lived with him here.

Here is a photo of the grave of Philip Comfort Starr in the Bedford House Cemetery, Ypres, Belgium:

To make them feel like he was not so far away, his family erected a cenotaph on the family monument in Rosehill Cemetery, Chicago:

To honor their fallen native son, the Village of Winnetka named a street after him:  Starr Road.  Here's one of the street signs:

"In Flanders Fields" is a poem written during the First World War by Canadian physician and Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae. He was inspired to write it on May 3, 1915, after presiding over the funeral of friend and fellow soldier Alexis Helmer, who died in the Second Battle of Ypres.

In Flanders fields the poppies grow
       Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
 Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
 We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
          In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
 To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
 We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
          In Flanders fields.

Philip Comfort Starr is one of those brave men who gave his life and lies buried in Flanders fields.  The next time you see a veteran selling poppies buy one and wear it proudly in remembrance of the sacrifice of Philip Comfort Starr. 

May he rest in peace.


  1. Dear Jim,
    By coincidence I have been reading Wade Davis' "Into the Silence, the Great War, Mallory,and the Conquest of Everest." Reading about the trenches caused me to think about my great uncle, Lt. Philip Comfort Starr. As I was growing up, I heard his name mentioned with such reverence and respect that I was shy to ask very much about him, and though I knew that he went to Canada and was killed in the war, that was all. Of course his photograph hung in an honored place in my grandfather's (his brother) house, and my uncle was named for him. Still, I knew so little, and now my grandparents have passed away, too. Reading this book moved me to search for information on the web, and I found your article. Thank you for the work you are doing and know that it means so very much, not just for history, but for the very people like myself, who would want to pass this information down along the generations. I am very grateful.
    My very warm regards, Sarah Elizabeth Starr,

  2. Hi Sarah and thank you so much for your note. It is comments like yours that make this all worthwhile. I must admit the story of Philip moved me deeply. Such selfless heroism is rare today - and yet Philip would be the first one to say he wasn't a hero at all - but we know better. I really enjoy doing the research for these tales and telling the stories to a new generation. Telling the story of Philip Comfort Starr was a great privilege for me. I am so glad you are pleased with it. Looking at the greatness of your ancestors I am in awe. It's people like them who made our country great. Thanks again for your kind words.