John Morgan Currie, Class of 1917

Chapter 1: Sherman

David Mitchell Currie took his family west from North Carolina in the 1870s, and found a plot of land to call home in Falls County, TX, just south of Waco. Like many Presbyterians, this family of farmers believed in the value of an education. So when basic schooling was finished for son Thomas White Currie, the eldest son headed to Sherman in 1905 to continue his studies.

Currie’s focus at AC was the seminary, and a life within the Presbyterian church awaited him after graduation. During his three years on campus, Currie was devoted to athletics. He was a member of the AC baseball and football teams, in an era that predated organized collegiate athletics. Currie was on the field in Sherman in October 1905 when AC lost a heart breaker to Texas A&M by a score of 18-11.

In 1907, Currie was elected head coach of the football team. Head coach at the turn of the century was little more than a team captain designation, as professional coaches were not permitted in amateur collegiate football. Currie’s last game for AC was an attempt to finally best Trinity after 4 years of failure. The Roos would come up short, but Currie’s teammates would earn that first victory against the Tigers one year later in 1908.

Tragedy had struck the Currie family in 1890 with the unexpected passing of Thomas’s mother Ira. Father remarried a local Texan named Irene Morgan, however, and the family began to grow anew. In 1895, Thomas saw the arrival of a step brother named John Morgan Currie.

Like his older brother, Currie was on his way to Sherman; he arrived in the fall of 1914. In addition to football, Currie played basketball, captained baseball, and was president of the “A” association. Even as a starting freshman guard on the offensive line, he was the largest man on the team. Due to his size, Currie was ironically given the nickname “Runt”.

The economic downturn of 1913-14 took its toll on AC admissions and the quality of AC football. The Roos and Currie limped through a difficult 1914 campaign, which included a 32-0 loss to the Aggies at Kyle Field. The Galveston Daily News reported the game on Page 4. Page 1 was reserved for other news in Europe.

Conflict in the Balkans during the summer of 1914 eventually led to Germany’s declaration of war on France in August. By the fall, the fight had already been engaged on the western front. The desire of Americans to keep the conflict at arms distance was strong at the time of the game at Kyle Field, and there was no reason for the participants on the field to consider the possibility of involvement. Besides, the conflict would likely be over as soon as it began, just like the Franco-Prussian war decades earlier.

Within a few years however, Currie, a few Aggies on the field, and most of the A&M Corps of Cadets watching the game would be on their way to Europe. According to Dr. Henry Dethloff’s book “Texas Aggies Go To War”, 54 Oak trees line the Simpson Drill Field in the shadow of Kyle Field and memorialize the 54 Aggies who lost their lives during World War I. Dr. Dethloff is the father of Carl Dethloff, San Angelo ISD Superintendent and veteran of Austin College basketball (AC Class of ’91).

In 1915, Kangaroo football began to show signs of life. After another opening game loss to A&M, the Roos traveled to Dallas Fair Park to face SMU, a new university participating in its first year of athletics. The AC-SMU game was the third in Mustang history, and the first of many games for SMU at Fair Park. It was no contest. Austin College routed the Mustangs 21-0, with Currie and the offensive line leading the way. According to the SMU yearbook, the game was played before an enormous crowd. The Mustang defense against the Roos, in a reference to the legendary elusiveness of the Mexican rebel leader, “resembled that of Villa’s army”.

SMU and the Texas State Fair Park have a long 100-year history. The Cotton Bowl was SMU’s home from 1932 to 1978, and again in the late 1990s. The stadium is often referred to the “House that Doak Built”, due to Heisman winner Doak Walker’s crowd drawing performances during the SMU glory years of the late 40s. Eric Dickerson and the Pony Express defeated Dan Marino in the 1983 Cotton Bowl Classic. SMU was even invited to the Dixie Classic at Fair Park stadium (precursor to the Cotton Bowl) in 1925. But the first ever trip to Fair Park for the Mustangs was a painful loss to Austin College.

A 13-0 win over Hendrix followed. Rival Trinity came to Sherman next, and soon wished they hadn’t. Currie and the OL created “large holes” all day, allowing the Kangaroos to score at will. By the merciful end, the Tigers had fallen 46-7, their worst ever defeat by the Roos at that time. Down in College Station on the same day, the Aggies upset the Longhorns 13-0 in a game which would give birth to the legend of how Longhorn mascot BEVO got its name.

The 1916 campaign was a difficult losing season. But that year included 3 losses to future SWC schools TCU, Rice, and Baylor. More importantly, the freshman on that 1916 team would be seniors by 1919, the beginning of a remarkable era of Roo football dominance. Currie had one season left of eligibility in the fall of 1917, and was expected to return as Captain. But events in Europe changed those plans.

Chapter 2: New York

On April 2nd 1917, President Wilson formally asked Congress to declare war on Germany. Currie and other Roos began to prepare to be soldiers. They enlisted, left Sherman, and headed to Camp Leon Springs near San Antonio for training. Meanwhile, back in Sherman, Currie was granted his diploma in abstentia during May 1917 graduation ceremonies.

As America mobilized for war, army divisions were formed from the states in which they originated. Texas had a division. So did New York, Illinois, and other states. It soon became clear that numerous states had leftover troops that had exceeded the numbers for their state’s division. These stragglers were all sent to Camp Mills in Garden City (Long Island), NY to form the Army’s 42nd Division. The 42nd soon became known as the “Rainbow” Division, named by a young Brigadier General who noted that the 26 states represented in the Division “stretched across the entire country like a rainbow”. That Brigadier General, Douglas MacArthur, would soon be in command of the entire 42nd. John Morgan Currie was assigned to Company M, 168th Infantry of MacArthur’s 42nd Rainbow Division.

As summer 1917 turned to fall back home, the Roos journeyed to Kyle Field for the final time. On Long Island, Currie was earning the respect of his commanding officers. He was promoted to sergeant, then second lieutenant, and finally first lieutenant of Company M, 168th Infantry. As first lieutenant, Currie led his own platoon of ~40 men within the Company. A monument to the 42nd Rainbow Division at what was then Camp Mills still exists today, at the corner of Clinton Rd. and Commercial Ave. in Garden City, NY.

The Rainbow Division began to make preparations for the European theatre. On October 18th, 5500 men from the 42nd boarded the President Grant in New York Harbor, just as the sun was setting. The British battleships that escorted the Grant played both the National Anthem and the recently composed “Over There” as America faded out of view. They arrived in Liverpool, England, and began to make their way south. Under cover of darkness, and illuminated only by English search lights scanning the skies, the 42nd crossed the Channel from Southampton to Le Havre, France.

The arrival of the Americans was initially expected to end the war quickly and decisively. However, the American build up was slow; most U.S. troops did not make it to the front lines until the late spring of 1918. As a result, by the end of the war the 42nd had spent more time engaged than any other Division. Also, the collapse of the Eastern Front after the Bolshevik revolution allowed Berlin to reallocate forces west. The stalemate which had existed since 1914 would survive well into 1918.

Chapter 3: Lorraine & the Marne

General John Pershing instructed his chief operations planner George C. Marshall to order numerous divisions southeast to the Lorraine area, where they would serve in a supporting role for British and French troops. Brigadier General George MacArthur led his 42nd division through the harsh winter of 1918 to camp near Baccarat and Luneville. As the snow melted and spring arrived, MacArthur began to prepare his men for combat.

The Germans attacked French lines in early March near the village of Neufmaisons. Company M of the 168th Infantry was brought in to assist, and Currie led his men out on a patrol under heavy gunfire to determine the positions of the new German line. This information allowed French forces to successfully repel the German advance. For “displaying qualities of coolness and courage under fire”, Currie was awarded the French Croix de Guerre with bronze star. The Croix de Guerre is the highest designation a foreign military official allied to France can receive, and has been bestowed upon other Americans such as Jimmy Stewart, Audie Murphy, and George C. Marshall himself.

Douglas MacArthur was something of a revolutionary in military tactics. Before WW1, platoon and company commanders played a leadership role from the rear. MacArthur instead believed that captains and lieutenants should play a more active role at the front lines, leading their men into battle. A more assertive role by commanders, MacArthur believed, would have a positive morale effect on the unit as a whole. It also put the lives of first lieutenants like John Morgan Currie in greater risk.

Having proven themselves in conflict, the American forces began to play a more dominant role. The 42nd was moved northwest in the summer of 1918 to the primary front near Reims and Chateau-Thierry. This move coincided with what some historians consider to be the last major German offensive of the war, the Second Battle of the Marne.

First Lieutenant John Taber was close to Currie, and Currie makes numerous appearances in Taber’s book “A Rainbow Division Lieutenant in France.” In his book, Taber describes the German assault:

“Before we got back our own artillery had let loose with a tremendous roar. It seemed as though every gun had fired at the same instant, and in a second the sky was lit with gun flashes and bursting shells. I’d never conceived of such a thunder of sound. The reports from nearby batteries were deafening, but we could still distinguish the steady rumble of the heavier pieces in the rear, and the shriek and whistle of the big shells as they went over in a solid stream. But all this was dwarfed by the fury of the Boche (German) bombardment that commenced fifteen minutes later.”

The offensive was a risky attempt at a knockout blow, but the Americans held. A monument dedicated to the 42nd Division’s successful defensive effort exists today not far from Chateau-Thierry. The Croix Rouge Memorial depicts a soldier of the 42nd carrying the body of his fallen comrade. Currie was injured during the Second Battle of the Marne, and spent a month in a military hospital east of Paris. He recuperated enough in August to resume his leadership in Company M. His company was headed southeast, to a place called St. Mihiel.

Chapter 4: St. Mihiel

D-Day is universally associated with the WWII landings at Normandy, but the first use of the term occurred in World War I, with the assault on the St. Mihiel Salient (bulge). The salient was German held territory for most of the war, and Pershing’s plan was to drive the Germans out in the first of many American offensives designed to end the war. The phrase “D-Day” was used as shorthand for the day of the attack. September 12, 1918.

MacArthur began to move the 42nd into place in early September. The assault plan consisted of three corps (II Corps (French), IV Corps(US), & I Corp(US)) attacking from the south, and one from the west. The 42nd was a part of the IV Corps, stretching from the Mont Sec hill in the west to the town of Fey-en-Haye in the east.

This first American offensive would be noteworthy for another reason. Tanks were a recent invention, and were put to use for the first time at St. Mihiel. Each Division at St. Mihiel was partnered with a Tank Battalion, and MacArthur’s 42nd was matched with the 304th Tank Battalion led by a brash Lieutenant Colonel named George S. Patton. MacArthur and Patton clashed during preparations. MacArthur favored a more supportive role for Patton’s 304th, while Patton want his battallion to lead.

The primary goal of the IV corps was reunion at Thiaucourt. On the left, Mont Sec would be taken and companies would advance in the open plains of the Woevre all the way to the city. Similarly, the right had nothing but French farms ahead after overcoming the German trenches.

But the 168th infantry, and Currie’s Company M, were right in the middle. And that’s where the Germans were. Currie’s company was just southeast of the town of Flirey. His orders were to take the town, enter No Man’s Land, overcome the German trenches lying just north of town, and march through the dense Sonnard Wood that lay behind on the way to Essey and finally Thiaucourt. The Germans had placed most of their defenses in the trenches backed by the Sonnard.

While watching from atop a nearby hill, MacArthur gave the go ahead. The bombardment began just after midnight on the 12th, and the attack was to be unleashed at 5 a.m. in darkness.

From Lieutenant Hugh Thompson’s book “Trench Knives and Mustard Gas, with the 42nd Rainbow Division in France”:

“’No reprieve,’ I muttered. ‘No reprieve from the punishment of five o’clock.’ It was all a dream; a nightmarish dream, this business of five o’clock. Remember, it was nearly half a mile to the Bois de la Sonnard and the first line [of defense] we must rout out of the woods. Five o’clock. The crushing weight hung like a pall over the bluffing words of Jim, who griped about our lack of wire cutters and bombs; over Pierce’s sarcastic rejoinder that maybe Gen. Pershing would call off the war until Jim got fixed. Five o’clock. I tried to whip myself into a fury of hate, but hate simply would not come to relieve the gnawing fear. Four thirty-five…four thirty-eight; time was fleeting, fleeting toward the end. Would the suffocating burden never lift? ‘See you in Essey,’ barked Jim, above the swishing shells. Four fifty-seven…four fifty-eight. ‘Good luck, good luck,’ the voices rang…”

At 5 a.m., Currie led his men past the village of Flirey, into No Man’s Land, and within sight of the trench.

He was killed by machine gun fire almost immediately.

From James Hallas’s book “Squandered Victory: The American First Army at St. Mihiel”:

“Standing on the parapet of the assault trench, Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur studied the attack through his field glasses. Experience had taught him the Germans tended to concentrate their strength in the center of the expense of their flanks. If he were correct in this instance, a penetration of Sonnard Wood would collapse this section of the enemy line. As bullets hissed by the general, a captain jumped out of the trench and touched him on the arm. ‘If I might suggest, sir’ he ventured, ‘your position is dangerous. The machine guns are reaching here.’”

“The remnants of M Company struggled through the first belt of wire fronting the wood. The survivors could almost feel the scorching blast of machine guns, but now at least they had definite targets. An automatic rifleman fell. Another came up, and Lieutenant John M. Currie of Austin, Texas seized his gun and emptied a full clip into an outpost, silencing it. As he handed the chauchat back, a German sniper shot him and he plunged over dead. Almost simultaneously the company commander and another lieutenant were also shot down.”

No Man’s Land, east of Flirey and south of the Sonnard

The advances on the left and right were spectacular successes. On the left, the Americans took Mont Sec, and then began to make their way to Thiaucourt. They soon met up with their 42nd Division allies on the right. But the advance in the middle was a much bloodier affair. The German trenches were eventually overrun, but fighting continued through the Sonnard.

Ignoring MacArthur’s instructions, Patton ordered his tanks to head through the woods to assist infantry and eventually lead a path for the 168th out and into the plain. By early morning, the Germans in the woods had been dispersed, and Patton himself was standing on a tank in open air as it entered the town of Essey. The 168th followed behind him, and eventually rendezvoused with the rest of the 42nd.

In spite of the losses in and around the Sonnard, the offensive was a rout. By September 16th, the entire Salient was American occupied, and Pershing began to make plans for another advance in October. The success of St. Mihiel was replicated at Meusse-Argonne. Cambrai fell soon thereafter. The “One Hundred Days Offensive”, which began in earnest at St. Mihiel, never even made it to 100 days. As the Americans prepared for yet another assault in German territory, Kaiser Wilhelm sued for peace on November 11, 1918. Armistice Day. Remembrance Day. The war was over.

Chapter 5: Memorial Day

The American Cemetery at St. Mihiel lies less than a mile from Thiaucourt, and is a final resting place for John Morgan Currie and other soldiers who gave their lives during the St. Mihiel offensive. In the town of Flirey, a monument can be found honoring the American and French soldiers who fought together to liberate the town and the region. The inscription on the Flirey monument reads “La Lorraine aux Etats-Unis (USA) 12 September 1918”.

At the top of Mont Sec lies the Mont Sec American Monument. The classic circular colonnade commemorates the American soldiers who fought in the Battle of St. Mihiel. The names of liberated towns, including Flirey, are inscribed in the monument, and the top offers a view of the entire region. One of the most famous photographs of the war is of the 42nd Division marching towards Mont Sec on September 14, 1918.

John Morgan Currie was posthumously awarded the Silver Star by the War Department “for gallantry in action near Flirey, France, September 12, 1918. Lt. Currie showed great bravery and skill in handling his platoon in the advance and daringly leading his men against the fire from enemy machine-gun emplacements.”

DKR Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin was built in 1924, and was originally dedicated to the Texas men and women who gave their lives during the First World War. They are all honored individually on bronze tablets at the WWI Memorial, located at the NW corner of the stadium. John Morgan Currie’s name is listed. And for those curious, Roo football has played at DKR Texas Memorial Stadium.

By 1919, older brother Thomas Currie (AC ’08) had already received a B.D. from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, just north of DKR Texas Memorial Stadium. He eventually joined the Seminary faculty, and later became President. The chief residence hall at the Seminary is named in his honor. As President, he oversaw the completion of the seminary’s Shelton Chapel in 1943.

The Chapel holds weekly services, and is also a popular venue for weddings in the Austin area. One of those weddings occurred in 2002, when Dianne Hodgins married me, your humble author. Yes, I got married in the chapel that First Lieutenant John Morgan Currie’s brother built.

The descendants of Thomas Currie continue to walk the halls of AC. According to Austin College Chaplain John Williams, Thomas Currie’s son did not go to Austin College, but….

“…one of his daughters did, as did two of his granddaughters and the spouses of three of his children.”

One of those descendants is Roo Kate Currie Carey, his great grand-daughter. Kate married Roo Chad Parker Carey (#61), who like John Morgan Currie was an offensive lineman for AC football. See this story on the Go Roos blog for Blake A Reedy’s Roo football photo of Chad Parker Carey, Vance Morris (Paul Young Morris tagged), Bob Stitt, Joe Bryant, Cory Hailey, Shawn Mahan, Trent Cox, Shane Allison, and others from the late 1990s. Chad and Kate are restaurant owners in San Antonio, and host Roos every year before the AC-Trinity football game.

In the summer of 1919, President Clyce dedicated the 10 Oaks (later increased to 12) that lie between Dean and Baker to the Roos lost during the conflict. At the dedication, Clyce remarked that “the bodies of some rest in sacred spots in the homeland, and others rest in the sacred soil of France. Every passer-by will know that brave men have lived and moved upon our grounds, and that from our class-rooms have gone forth men who gave everything, even life itself.”

The Great War was not the war to end all wars. But that sentiment remains a worthwhile ideal. The Class of 2017 graduates this month in Sherman, just as John Morgan Currie and the Class of 1917 did 100 years ago. As you walk across campus and pass the 12 Oaks, you might want to take a moment to reflect. Doing so reminds us all of the brutal human cost of war and the ideal of a world without violent conflict. It also ensures that old Roo soldiers like John Morgan Currie never die, and never fade away.

2 comments on “John Morgan Currie, Class of 1917”

  1. kcarey

    reading all the wonderful primary sources was a real treat. Thank you! ~Kate Currie Carey

  2. Pingback: September 11th, 1918

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