December 14, 2018
The fact that Sewing Circle member Mary Burnham’s son died in World War I was a sad story. But a trip to the Massachusetts National Guard archive turned the story into a tragedy.
On December 14, 1918, Second Lieutenant Edward Clifton “Clif” Burnham, Jr., died during “rifle practice” at Camp Hancock, Georgia. All three of Mary’s sons, Clif, Malcolm, and Kenneth, enlisted to fight in the Great War. Ken was in the thick of it in the trenches of France, but it was younger brother Clif who died.
The worst part of the story, the part that wasn’t shared with the public, is that the military records show there is more to this sad tale. Clif’s record reads “gunshot wound (Suicide).”
The military cards for World War I were created several years after the war, and although these are official records the cards are not infallible. I’ve done two military history projects and have occasionally found cards that are incorrect. One of Clif’s two cards has his address listed as “Northryn St” rather than 1 Northrop Street, where the family lived. And another official document simply notes Clif “died.” But in military parlance, the word “suicide” can also mean something slightly different from today’s connotation. The card of a Worcester soldier who died in that same war reads, “suicide, result of own misconduct.” That, to modern eyes, looks more like an awful, self-inflicted accident.
But the story goes deeper. The archive holds the letters of both Clif and older brother Ken, a gift that the Burnham family has left to historians. Ken served with the in the 103rd Field Artillery as a Private First Class, and he was in the thick of it. In letters to his family, Ken hints at his location because he knows censors will come down hard if he gives specifics. He also shares details his daily hardships. “The things I’ve seen during the past few days! War is a terrible thing, but the fascination of it all!” Ken wrote excitedly in early 1918, but by fall he is seeing the hum-drum of horror. “The only vegetation which struggles up between the many shell-holes consists of a little ragged grass and a few weeds and thistles. The ground has been pitted and raked up by a withering artillery fire,” he wrote to his family in September, 1918. “I am in a little dugout where the rain drips through at all times, and where the rats scurry around during the night. But we are getting accustomed to the raindrops and the rodents.”
At the end of October that year, Ken is in the middle of a bombardment, possible as part of the Meuse-Argonne offensive, the most deadly battle for American soldiers in our history. His letter is a mess, he says, because “the concussion is strong enough to shake the ink out of this pen of mine.”
Clif, on the other hand, is at an officer training camp in Georgia, and now outranks his two older brothers as a Second Lieutenant in the Infantry. His last letter, written 11 days before his death, is hopeful and maudlin in turns, and even seems a bit prophetic. “Seriously there is a great chance of you two fellows never having to salute kid brother,” Clif writes to Ken. The war is over, and Clif is trying to figure out the next stage of his life. Before the war, he was a student at Brown University along with both Ken and Mal, and he would have graduated in the class of 1920. Now he has to decide between staying in the National Guard as a reserve officer or “staying in the service and qualifying for a real commission.”
Clif writes about the training he is receiving with the Browning machine gun, “belching forth 600 per minute,” and how he is at a range at Camp Johnson, about 12 miles outside his home base at Camp Hancock. Even though his letter ends with an invitation to fish with Ken in Minnesota after the war, the letter turns dark. “Where there is no action no ink can run and so until I get out of this stagnation my letters will be insipid as the life I live. Your kid brother Clif.”
Whether or not Clif Burnham caused his own death, either accidentally or on purpose, his family must have been devastated. When he was buried in Hopedale Village Cemetery just before Christmas, he was given a hero’s send-off. “The funeral was one of the largest held in Hopedale,” the Milford Daily News reported. The president of Brown University, where all three of Mary’s sons were students, attended and “delivered a fine eulogy.” The Franklin State Guard fired three volleys “and taps were sounded.” Clif’s casket, the paper noted, “was completely surrounded by floral offerings.”
Edward C. Burnham, Jr., the baby of the family, was only 21 years old.