Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Ralph Holcomb - Short Biography

Ralph Elliot Holcomb - Supreme Sacrifice

The reality is, I don’t know much about Ralph Holcomb. I am including this with the short biographies but the article is really about his funeral. He died in 1919 as a casualty of the First World War. Ralph Elliot Holcomb was born on October 9th, 1898 to Reuben T. Holcomb and Amber Fessenden. His parents were in Monticello, Wisconsin for a couple of years and then moved to Monroe. Reuben served as the elected Clerk of Court for Green County beginning in 1896 so it might be assumed that Ralph was born in Monroe. The Holcombs built a house on the 800 block of West Russell Street in the 1890’s (now the 900 block of 10th Street). At that time, they were living at the edge of town on Monroe’s northwest side. The house still stands today, though it has been substantially altered.

It might be assumed that Ralph lived a fairly normal late 19th/early 20th century childhood in the small, but bustling county seat of Monroe. There was plenty of open countryside for exploring, right near his home. It is also likely that the family paid an occasional visit to his uncle’s farm in the Town of Adams where Ralph’s father had grown-up. It would be easy to construct a Norman Rockwell image of his life but there were some hardships to endure as well. On the day after Christmas, December 26th 1902, when Ralph was just a few months past his fourth birthday, him mother Amber died at the age of 36.
Mrs. Amber Holcomb, wife of R.T. Holcomb, former clerk of court, died at her home in Monroe Friday, aged 36 years. A little son and little daughter are left with the husband to mourn their loss - from the Albany Vindicator (01/01/1903).
The Holcomb home was a bustling place in those days. Amber's mother and sister and Reuben’s mother would live with them at various times in the first decade of the 20th century. The larger extended family meant more helping hands before and after Amber's death. Also, after she died, Reuben would venture to western Iowa for three years, though it is unclear if the children went with him. In 1906, he returned to Monroe with a new wife and a baby. We can only speculate what the effects of these trials and tribulations might have had on young Ralph but he seems to have overcome them all and grown into a well respected young man.

Click on to view the details of Ralph Holcomb's enlistment.
When the United States entered World War I, Ralph was working as a clerk in nearby Brodhead, Wisconsin. He and a childhood friend, John Caradine would enlist together in December of 1917. On August 12th, 1918, John would be killed in action. One day later, Ralph would be wounded at Fismes. Eleven others from Monroe and 29 from all over Green County would give their lives in the Great War. Ralph served with Battery ‘C’ of the 4th Division, 13th Field Artillery. He would be wounded in the Battle of Chateau Thierry and would die on January 5th, 1919 while in route home. This was the time of the great influenza pandemic that struck the world in late 1918 and early 1919 and Ralph seemed to fall victim to this plague. As with most of the victims of this strain of flu, he would develop pneumonia and never recover. Even though his death came later then many others from the area, his was the first body returned home and hence the first funeral of a World War I casualty in Monroe.
The coat of arms of the 13th Field Artillery Regiment. Created in 1916, the
regiment is still active today. The photo is of a typically field battery in WWI.
There was a lengthy article in the local newspaper that described his funeral. You can get a sense that January 14th 1919, was a very moving and emotional time for many of the town’s citizen. Most would have known Ralph or one of the other boys who had perished so this was a time for the whole community to reflect and mourn their losses. The day started with a private service at the Holcomb home on Russell Street. That was followed by a public funeral at the Universalist Church officiated by the Reverend N.E. McLaughlin. The Monroe Evening Times described the scene, “Funeral services with military honors where held this afternoon for the late Private Ralph Holcomb . . . the funeral services were attended by many citizens, including the patriotic organizations of the city and twenty men who had been in service.” In addition, it was noted that three squads from Company I acted as a military escort. A large floral arrangement in the shape of the American flag was furnished by the men aboard the battleship Kansas where Ralph had died while in route to America. A letter from the ship's Chaplin was also read aloud at the services. The Reverend McLaughlin told of Ralph’s childhood and of his boyhood friend John Caradine. He also reminded everyone that is was 56 years ago to the month (January 1863) that the first funeral for a soldier was held in the church. The article went on, “the funeral brought home the war with its sadness, heroism and tragedy. Private Holcomb was wounded at Fismes, in the great battle of Chateau Thierry, one of the worlds most decisive battles, early in August and had recovered from his wound fairly well before starting home when he was taken ill with pneumonia and died aboard ship.” Parts of Revered McLaughlin's eulogy were reprinted and his words were powerful . . .
. . . It is fitting that citizens of Monroe should give public recognition to this world war hero . . . he deserves every honor we can bestow upon him, for he died for us. He made the supreme sacrifice and what does that mean? He gave up everything dear in this world, the only things that he kept being an honorable name and hope of immortality . . . He was one of 100,000 Americans who paid with their lives that we might live in safety. He died in the cause more heroic than Tennyson’s ten thousand, more worthy than the 600 who died at Balaclava, greater than the one for which 300 died at Thermopylae. He died in the most heroic and sacred of all causes, that of the angel in man against the beast in man, henceforth he lives not in body but as one of the immortals. He lives in the memory and hearts of his countrymen. Whether we live or die, the only life really worth while is the life given in some great cause. He was a volunteer in a great and sublime cause and is now one of the ‘Choir Invisible’ whose music is the gladness of the world . . . "
The Reverend went on to read from Paul, “. . . for I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day . . . "
And then he continued his oration: “ . . . It is hard to give up those whom we have loved, it is hard for us all. We would have it otherwise if we could. There is some comfort, however, in the thought that he died in the great cause and that his name is inscribed with the imperishable ones of this republic who died for freedom and liberty . . .”
The USS Kansas at the French port of Brest in 1919. The ship would make a number
of voyages back and forth from France to the U.S. taking sailors home toward the end
of the war. Ralph Elliot Holcomb would spend his last days on earth aboard this ship.
During the services, Mrs. Amelia Churchill played Handel’s “Dead March” and Mendelssohn’s “Consolation.” The Reverend McLaughlin read a poem by Harry Lauder called “My One and Only Boy” and sang “Beautiful Isle of Somewhere.” Six members of Company I acted as pall bearers and included: Alfred Baltzley, Walter Burgy, Harry Roth, Lawrence Stauffacher, Leland Lynch and Clarence Keel. Ralph Holcomb was buried at Greenwood Cemetery where taps were sounded at the grave by Ralph Krueger.

The news account concluded with a remark about the town, “As a mark of respect for this war hero, most of the business places in the city were closed during the hours of the funeral.”

Ralph Holcomb is buried near other family members at
Greenwood Cemetery in Monroe, Wisconsin
My records of the life of Ralph Holcomb are slim at best but in his death, we seem to gain a great sense of who he was. I hope this post has shed some light on his life, his death and his sacrifice.

Research Notes: Much of the information for this post was found in a newspaper article from the Monroe Evening Times (January 14, 1919). Additional information was obtained from the United States Census and other web-based and local sources.

This is one of a series of short biographies of individual ancestors. These are undertaken, from time-to-time, when enough information becomes available about an individual.


  1. I live in CASTRES ( south of France ) I'm born in FISMES France .I'm 62 years old .I wanted to thank Ralph Holcomb to have helped us when we needed and promise to the HOLCOMB's family to remember your Name each time i'll go to my homeland
    If you need more information about FISMES and FISMETTES ...
    For sure sincerely

    Jean-Claude PLAINCHONT

    1. Jean-Claude,

      Thank you very much for reading and leaving your kind words. I wrote this post to give Ralph Holcombe a voice and so we can remember him. He died for his country and also for yours. Your e-mail adds another voice to the memory. When you go home, if you can find any information on the action at Fismes, around the time of August of 1918, I would be glad to hear about it. Thank you again.

  2. Bruce,

    I stumbled upon your blog while researching my great-grandfather, August Riske. I know that he was at least somewhat connected with Brodhead, WI, and he served in WWI in the 4th Division of the 13th Field Artillery. I am wondering if you could point me in the direction where you learned the story of that division in WWI.

    Thank you for writing this history; it is neat to come across this connection!


    1. Chris,

      Sorry for the late reply and thanks for reading. The fact that Ralph Holcomb died may have lead me to more information, such as the newspaper article about him, and his listing as a casualty (in some places on-line). I do have one army document on the 4th division that outlines their actions in WWI. Not sure where I stumbled upon it but I would be happy to e-mail it to you. Hit one of my contact buttons and that will send me an e-mail and then we can talk.