Remembering the late Capt. Charles Harris and events in northeast France 100 years ago

Updated: Jul 10, 2020

On 20 October 2018, a 100-year commemorative event was held in honor of U.S Army Captain Charles D. Harris and the 6th Engineers of the 3d Division in northeastern France. The event marked two weeks of fighting during General John J. Pershing’s Meuse-Argonne campaign that resulted in the liberation of Aincreville and Clery Le Grand from German occupation.

Captain Charles Dashiell Harris was company commander of B Company of the 6th Engineers. He was a member of the West Point Class of 1918, though the entire class actually graduated in 1917 and soon after, were promoted to captain. Captain Harris stood out in the action, leading actions that resulted in the German expulsion from these villages.

Captain Harris was killed in this action and decorated posthumously with the French Croix de Guerre with Palm and the American Distinguished Service Cross. At that time, the U.S. Army did not award a Purple Heart medal for wounds in action. These two decorations are the second highest for valor awarded by both armies.

During the action as a company commander, Captain Harris eliminated three machine gun nests and captured several prisoners from his personal actions. After being shot in the chest capturing a fourth machine gun nest, he was carried to a Red Cross battlefield tent, which turned out to be German. He was treated but died from wounds.

Captain Harris was buried with battlefield respect by the Germans even during combat and his grave was marked with a wooden cross. Upon his body, wrapped in an army oilcloth was a note explaining that he was buried with dignity as best they could during the combat AND the Germans apologized with a note for taking his boots as their soldiers were missing boots or had none.

Captain Harris’s remains were eventually recovered by the American army and relocated several times, as was the practice after WWI with the mass casualty recovery operations. His family chose to have him returned to America for burial in the Harris family plot in Princeton, New Jersey as part of the massive “bring the boys home” effort by the Army and General Pershing in 1920.

In 1920, the French villages and his father, General Peter Charles Harris, arranged for a memorial stele be placed at the site of this fierce combat in a clump of white oak woods, Clair Chenes, around Clery Le Grand. That stele remains there today, cared for by village family members who owe the existence of their grandparents, then small children, to the 6th Engineers and Captain Harris. The other village of Aincreville established a significant monument in their town square for Captain Harris and the 6th Engineers and named their town square, Place Harris.

Also in 1920, General Harris and the mayor of Aincreville created a commemorative fringed Tri Color with gold embroidered lettering commemorating Captain Harris to hang in the mayor’s office. The flag remains there today, although now glass encased.

During World War II, when Germans soldiers occupied the area, village leaders hid the flag in the lining of the mayor’s overcoat where it remained until 1945.

At the 75th anniversary commemoration, the village of Aincreville made Harris an honorary citizen.

This year, on the 100th anniversary of day he was killed, Aincreville and Clery Le Grand held ceremonies honoring Captain Harris.