Jerry Funke visits Meuse-Argonne Cemetery
Julius Holthaus, Hugo Funke, and my grandfather Edward J. Funke were first cousins. Julius’ mother Josephine, Hugh’s father John, and Edward’s father Herman were brothers and sister (so Julius and Hugh are my first-cousins twice removed); they all migrated with their parents from Iowa to Cottonwood in the early 1900’s. The three first cousins enlisted for service during the “Great War;” my grandfather was the only one of the three cousins to return home. Edward, my grandfather, did not see action during the war; he was on a troop-transport ship to France when word was received over the wireless that the Armistice had been signed. The ship turned around in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and headed back to Newport News, Virginia.
My travel companions Fritz and Marge DiLorenzo of Boise and I traveled in rented car to Romagne. It is a small town about the size of Cottonwood some 160 miles northeast of Paris. The town of Verdun, infamous for the World War I battles that took place there, is about 16 miles to the east. The Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery lies outside Romagne and is the largest U.S. military cemetery in Europe. There are 14,246 War Dead interred within the cemetery, most of who fell during operations of the First U.S. Army, between September 26 and November 11, 1918.
Arriving at the Cemetery we went directly to the Visitors’ Building. There I enquired about locating the graves of Julius Holthaus and Hugo Funke. The attendant, who later identified himself as a retired U.S. military officer and the Cemetery’s administrator, asked about my interest in these two men. When I informed him they were my grandfather’s first cousins, he became quite animated and said, “You are next-of-kin,” and gave me a special “next-of-kin” visitor’s packet. He asked if I was the first of the family to ever visit the graves. I told him I knew Julius’ mother had visited his grave. The administrator then brought out a large old book, “The Gold Star Mother’s Book.” There it was recorded that both Josephine Holthaus and Barbara Funke had indeed visited their sons’ graves. In the 1930’s the U.S. government provided expense-paid trips for mothers or spouses of the fallen soldiers so they could visit their graves. Actually the Visitors’ Building first had served as a guest house for the Gold-Star mothers. I also was asked to sign the Cemetery’s “Next-of-Kin” guest book and record that I had come to visit the graves of Julius and Hugo.
The administrator then led us to a large wall map to show us the locations of my cousins’ military units and the approximate places of their deaths. Julius Holthaus belonged to the 308th Infantry Regiment, 77th Division, which was involved in action in the Argonne Forest. His Regiment was part of the “Lost Battalion,” an American force of some 550 men which moved beyond the rest of the allied lines and for 6 days, October 2 – 7, 1918, was cut off and completely surrounded by German forces. Julius was killed on October 1st, the day before his battalion became the “Lost Battalion.” Upon returning home I did research in the Idaho State Historical Library in Boise and discovered an article in the November 7, 1918, issue of The Grangeville Globe (the forerunner of the Idaho County Free Press) reporting that Julius’ parents were notified of his death in early November. According to the article, Julius was the first Cottonwood boy reported killed in action. (There are no copies of the Cottonwood Chronicle for the latter part of 1918 on file in the library.)
Hugo Funke belonged to the 2nd Engineer Regiment, 2nd Division. According to the cemetery administrator, on November 10th his regiment was charged with building a platoon bridge over a river (which he showed us on the map). The regiment reported taking enemy fire and suffering casualties. Likely Hugo was one of the casualties as he died on November 10, 1918, the second last day of the war—the Armistice went into effect on November 11, 1918. According to the April 18, 1919 issue of the Cottonwood Chronicle his family was not notified of his death until mid-April of 1919, some 5 months after the end of the war. His brothers Leo and Felix were also with the U.S. Army in France and had been searching for him since the war’s end. The family solicited the assistance of Senator Nugent of Idaho in obtaining information from the War Department of Hugo’s whereabouts.
After our time in the Visitor’s House, a cemetery attendant took us by electric car to the grave sites—first to Hugo’s grave and then to Julius’. The attendant brought a bucket of wet sand (reportedly from Omaha Beach) to wipe on the marble crosses marking each grave so that the names would appear on photos. I had brought along on our trip a plastic bag of black Prairie dirt, soil from Funke Brothers Farm outside Cottonwood, and so spread half on Hugo’s grave and the other half on Julius’ grave. So they now rest in a small bit of home soil from Idaho. My companions and I said the prayers for the dead at each grave, spent some time in the large chapel that overlooks the cemetery, and walked among the rows and rows of graves of American service men who lost their lives in the First World War. We took special note of those we came upon who were from Idaho.
We were very impressed by the quiet, yet tragic, beauty of the Cemetery and the attention and kindness extended to us by the Cemetery staff, simply because I was a “next-of-kin.” Most of all we left with the memory of the supreme sacrifice made by Julius, Hugo and their 14,000 comrades in defense of our nation and the freedom and rights we enjoy. On the lintel directly over the entrance of the cemetery chapel is inscribed: “IN SACRED SLEEP THEY REST.” May it be so, and may we hold their memory dear and their sacrifice sacred.