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Wainwright Merrill – An American Who Gave His Life for England

In the summer of 1998, I attended a leadership program at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. While there, I was able to experience Cambridge life and explore the campus. The Harvard campus is rich in history, but of all of the sites, none is more moving to me than the Memorial Church that houses Harvard’s tribute to its World War 1 dead. In all, at least 11,319 Harvard men from the Classes ranging from 1887 to 1921, served in the war. Dedicated in 1932, Memorial Church features Malvina Hoffman’s recumbent statue, titled, “The Sacrifice.” In this sculpture a medieval knight lies on a funeral bier with his Harvard shield in hand, as a shrouded woman mourns his loss. Above and behind on the high marble wall are the names of 373 Harvard students and graduates who died in World War 1 (including four who died fighting for Germany). It is a solemn place of dedication and quiet remembrance.

One of the names inscribed upon the wall is Wainwright Merrill, Class of 1919. Merrill spent a year studying English literature at Dartmouth (1915-1916), but even at the age of 17, believed in America’s entry into the war. He served as a member of Dartmouth’s college military battalion that began training in February of 1916. The group practiced marching and studied artillery & tactics. The group also dug a series of elaborate trenches near the Dartmouth football field. Merrill attended two sessions of the civilian military training camp established at Plattsburg, New York. When he transferred to Harvard in the fall of 1916 in order to be closer to his family in Cambridge, Merrill joined Harvard’s Officer Training Corps program. Merrill’s mother had died when he was just ten years old. Merrill, his father Samuel, and older brother, Gyles, lived in a large Victorian home that still stands at 45 Bellevue Avenue in Cambridge. Gyles also served in the field artillery in World War 1 and retired after World War II at the rank of colonel.

Although several online sources indicate that Merrill was born in England on March 2, 1895, records preserved by the State of Massachusetts show that he was actually born in Cambridge, Massachusetts. References to his British birth may stem from his use of an alias at the time of his enlistment. Merrill expressed great affinity toward the British people. In his letters Merrill referred to the English as “his countrymen” and admitted, “I like England very, very much. I could easily love it as a home, and it is surely greatly worth fighting for.” After England suffered through two years of war, Merrill decided that he needed to become involved in the struggle. He left Harvard in November of 1916 and traveled to Kingston, Ontario. Once there, he volunteered to serve as a gunner in the 6th Siege Battery of Canadian Garrison Artillery. Only eighteen, he was considered a minor by the Canadian military. Because his father did not consent to his enlistment, Merrill assumed the name “Arthur A. Stanley” and joined the Canadians. In a letter home to his father, Merrill explained that he “could not, in honour, stay out if America should take no action.

From November 1916 to October 1917, Merrill was assigned to a training camp in England. He enjoyed his time in England and explored the countryside at every opportunity. On a few occasions, he overstayed his leave and was placed under military arrest. He spent his time in military custody reading classic literature. Finally, on October 18, 1917, Merrill was sent to France. He was posted to Boulogne-sur-Mer, and was then stationed near Ypres in Flanders, Belgium where he manned the heavy artillery guns behind the front lines of combat. Despite his rear guard duty, Merrill’s life ended on November 6, 1917, when a long range German artillery shell exploded in his barracks, killing him. Merrill was only nineteen and had been in Belgium less than a month. Ten days before his death, Merrill had written to a Harvard classmate, Edward Hubbard, contemplating the possibility of his death:

“It's mighty hard, Ed leaving everything back there, perhaps for good and all. So if it should be that, friend, I'll say good-bye—but God! how can one—a couple of simple words and it’s over, and you go up to the Line, and try to laugh, or smile at least, and swallow it down. But it's part of the game, of course, and it is a noble end which we seek out of the ruck and jetsam of death and broken men and lasting sorrow.”

Merrill was buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Ypres.

Recently I purchased an original photo of Wainwright Merrill in his Canadian uniform. The photo was used by his family to illustrate a memorial volume of his wartime letters, A College Man in Khaki: Letters of an American in the British Army, that was published by George H. Doran Company in 1918. The photo is posted here in memory of a young American who was moved to action in 1916 and who died, like many of his generation, in the conflagration that was the Great War.

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