Angel of the Trenches

Joao Baptista DeValles was born in 1879 in Saint Miquel in the Azores.  At the age of 2 his family moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts.  His first name anglicized to John, he quickly proved himself a brilliant student, eventually being fluent in six languages.  Ordained a priest in 1906 he served at Falls River at Espirito Santo Church, founding the first Portuguese language parochial school in the United States while he was there.  He later served at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in New Bedford and was pastor at Saint John the Baptist Church, also in New Bedford.

After the entry of the US into World War I, he joined the Army as a chaplain, serving with the 104th regiment, a Massachusetts National Guard outfit, part of the Yankee (26th) Division, made up of National Guard units from New England.  The Yankee Division arrived in France in September 1917, the second American division to arrive “Over There”.

The 104th was a hard fighting outfit, serving in all of the major campaigns of the American Expeditionary Force.  For heroic fighting at Bois Brule in April, 1918 the French government awarded the regiment a collective Croix de Guerre, an unprecedented honor for an American military unit.  There were quite a few very brave men in the 104th, and among the bravest of the brave was Chaplain DeValles.  For his heroism in rescuing wounded, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest decoration for valor in the United States Army.  Here is the text of the citation:

104th Infantry Regiment, 26th Division, A.E.F. Date of Action: April 10 – 13, 1918 Citation: The Distinguished Service Cross is presented to John B. De Valles, Chaplain, U.S. Army, for extraordinary heroism in action near Apremont, Toul sector, France, April 10 to 13, 1918. Chaplain De Valles repeatedly exposed himself to heavy artillery and machine-gun fire in order to assist in the removal of the wounded from exposed points in advance of the lines. He worked for long periods of time with stretcher bearers in carrying wounded men to safety. Chaplain De Valles previously rendered gallant service in the Chemin des Dames sector, March 11, 1918, by remaining with a group of wounded during a heavy enemy bombardment. General Orders No. No. 35, W.D., 1920

One of the many horrors of the trench warfare of World War I, was the plight of wounded soldiers trapped in No Man’s Land.  Night after night Father DeValles would go out to rescue Allied and German wounded, risking his life to save theirs.  After one such mission he was found the next day wounded and unconscious next to a dead soldier he had been trying to aid.  The newspapers began to refer to him as the Angel of the Trenches.  The French government recognized his heroism with the Croix de Guerre and membership in the Legion of Honor.

He was known to the men of the 104th as Father John.  For his courage and good humor he was popular with his fellow soldiers.  He would routinely make “loans” to the men of the 104th who needed assistance, after making certain that the money would not be used for immoral purposes.  He recorded the “loans” meticulously, but when Pay Day rolled around, he would invariably tell his orderly to rip out the page of his journal containing the “loan” record.

Father DeValles’ life was brief after his service in World War I.  His health had been wrecked by his wounds during the War, and especially by the mustard gas he had breathed in.  He died on May 12, 1920 at age 41, a few hours before his Distinguished Service Cross arrived.  All of New Bedford mourned his passing.

5 Responses to Angel of the Trenches

  • Thank you for this, Donald. I probably would never had read about Chaplain De Valles otherwise.

  • He is unjustly obscure Spambot. A good recent look at him is in Joseph Persico’s 11th month, 11th day, 11th hour:

    http://www.amazon.com/Eleventh-Month-Day-Hour-Armistice/dp/0375508252

  • “John B. de Valles had been born in the Azores to Portuguese parents who had taken him to Massachusetts as a child. He had been ordained in 1906 and became a popular parish priest, first in Fall River and then in New Bedford. When America went to war, Father de Valles immediately joined the Chaplains’ Corps. His popularity transferred easily to the 104th. When a soldier found himself short before payday, the priest could be touched for a loan of a few francs—on one condition: he must promise not to use the money for what de Valles called “cohabitation.” His orderly kept a ledger in which the loans were recorded. But when payday came around, Father de Valles would tell him to tear out the page. The orderly was Connell Albertine, who looked upon the day the chaplain had chosen him as the luckiest of his young life.

    Albertine felt secure in the priest’s presence. The previous April, near Saint-Agnant, when Private Burns had been hung up on the wire in no-man’s-land, screaming in agony, Chaplain de Valles heaved himself out of the trench and began crawling toward the wounded man. The priest disentangled Burns from the wire, lifted him onto his back, and staggered to the trench as enemy machine-gun bullets tore into the ground around them.

    After bloody fighting at Commercy, de Valles had stood mutely watching a procession of carts haul the 104th’s dead from the field. Albertine heard Father de Valles curse through clenched teeth, “Kill them! Kill the bastards!” The priest later apologized to his orderly, but the words, he said, had tumbled out and felt right. The incident had bound Albertine more closely to the chaplain, making de Valles as humanly imperfect as his flock.

    Now, on this last day, the nightmare of raglike bodies, gas-seared lungs, and unholy shrieks from the wire, he believed, had to end.

    Colonel Cassius M. Dowell commanded another regiment of the 26th Division, the 103rd. That November 11, Dowell was in his dugout bent over a map, marking the point where his regiment could expect to end the war. At 9:45 a.m., his field phone rang. Colonel Duncan K. Major, the division’s chief of staff, was on the line informing him that the attack had been reinstated. Dowell was to send his men against German machine guns in a war that would end in a little over an hour. “Why?” Dowell asked. “The French compelled us to do it,” Major answered. The 26th was in fact under command of the French II Colonial Corps. Major had experienced his own disbelief when told that the canceled assault was now to go forward. He had checked with the operations chief of the French corps for confirmation. Major, his French imperfect, feared he had misunderstood. An American liaison officer serving with the French came on the line and informed Major that he had heard correctly. The assault was back on. This was the news that Major was now relaying to disbelieving regimental commanders of the 26th.

    Cassius Dowell, now in his sixteenth year in the army, was gruff, plainspoken, an officer who had risen from private to his present rank. He was not without compassion for his men, but was a soldier first. He too had learned unofficially from a friend on division staff that the armistice had been signed just after 5 a.m. He had not shared this information with his men “lest it might interfere with their advance during the attack that had been ordered for that day.” He had then received word that the assault, except for the artillery bombardment, had been called off. He could not, however, resist one last blow at the Hun. He warned that if any shells were left unfired at 11 a.m., he would court-martial the responsible battery commander.

    On learning that the attack had been fully reinstated, “I stood there a few seconds debating as to whether I should send my men forward, having told them that they would not have to go,” Dowell later recalled. “I expected my casualties to be very heavy.”

    Lieutenant Harry G. Rennagel, released from the hospital just the day before, rejoined his unit of the 26th Division to find his men laughing, joking, talking more loudly than they ever dared in the trenches. They were “waiting for the bell to ring,” they told him, signaling the end of the war. “When the orders came to go over the top,” he remembered, “we thought it was a joke.”

    Albertine watched Chaplain de Valles move through the trench, deathly pale, comforting the men. An Italian private from Boston’s North End asked the chaplain to bless him and kissed the cross hanging from t… ”

    http://www.amazon.com/Eleventh-Month-Day-Hour-Armistice/dp/product-description/073931517X

  • His bravery is exemplary! I can’t even imagine the fortitude it would take to continuously expose oneself to the horrors of battle on the behalf of others as he did. Thank you for sharing his story.

  • Thank you Bekah. I write about chaplains like Father DeValles so that we may never forget these Heroes of Christ.

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