This is part of a series of essays about the First World War casualties commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Massachusetts.
‘I had to put my hand on the Bible and swear in the King’s name, but this did not bother me when I thought that after all it was for the one big cause.’
After graduating high school, William Becker Hagan decided that he would serve as soon as he was able with the American Field Service in France. On his return to United States, he went to Canada and joined the Royal Air Force.
He was born on 12 December 1898 at Brookline, Massachusetts, the second child and eldest son of Oliver and Josephine Hagan—his father was from Alabama and worked as a leather salesman. Bill Hagan was educated at the Huntington School and the Stone’s School before attending Phillips Academy, the prestigious private boarding school for boys.
Immediately following his graduation, Hagan joined the American Field Service. Following precedent set in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the American community in Paris organized an ‘ambulance’—a military hospital—which was set up in Neuilly-sur-Seine, and volunteer ambulance drivers, driving motorized ambulances based on the Model-T Ford chassis, transported casualties from railheads to hospitals, mainly in northern France. By 1915 the French Army had taken control of these drivers and established the American Ambulance Field Service, which worked in direct support of the French Army in Champagne, at Verdun and in the Vosges. In 1916 the Field Service cuts its ties with the original hospital and after the United States entered the war the Field Service drivers began to be used by the French Army for driving tasks other than in support of the evacuation of casualties (the ambulance unit raised by Phillips Academy was used as a general transport unit after its arrival in France in May 1917). Now known as the American Field Service, it was largely amalgamated with the United States Army Ambulance Service from the end of 1917.
On 26 May 1917, Hagan joined Section 12 of the American Field Service. The Section had been formed in Paris in February and, by the time Hagan joined, it was in the Argonne in support of the French 71st Division. This was a relatively quiet period for the Section and by October the process to bring it into the United States Army Ambulance Service was underway. Hagan had now completed his six months’ service and returned to the United States aboard the SS St Paul on 26 November. He attempted unsuccessfully to join the Air Service, United States Army and, undaunted, travelled to Canada and enlisted for service as a flying cadet with the Royal Air Force on 18 April 1918.
While studying at the Cadet Wing at the University of Toronto—No. 4 School of Military Aeronautics—Hagan fell ill with influenza in early May and he died of pneumonia at the Military Base Hospital on 11 May 1918. His body was returned home and he was buried in Holyhood Cemetery, Brookline alongside his mother and maternal grandmother. The grave is near the centre of the cemetery in ‘Field of Hebron’, Grave 1559 and is marked by a private memorial.
William Becker Hagan is commemorated on page 587 of the Canadian First World War Book of Remembrance; that page is displayed on 19 December. He is also commemorated in the memorial volume of the American Field Service,3 and in the Honor Roll of Phillips Academy, Andover; his name is inscribed on the southern wall of the Memorial Bell Tower, which was dedicated in June 1923.
1. (Back) William Becker Hagan quoted in: Feuss, C M. (1919). Phillips Academy, Andover, In The Great War. New Haven: Yale University press. p 68.
2. (Back) Oliver Hagan (25 September 1856-26 February 1944) married Catherine Josephine Fitch (March 1869-23 March 1904) on 11 October 1894 at Newton Lower Falls: Elizabeth Oliver (later Saxe) (19 May 1895-30 April 1985); Oliver (18 December 1899-NK).
3. (Back) For more information on the American Field Service see:
Seymour, J W D (Ed). (1920). History of the American field service in France, ‘Friends of France’, 1914-1917. Volumes I, II, & III.
Hansen, A. (1996). Gentlemen Volunteers: The Story of the American Ambulance Drivers in the Great War. New York: Arcade Publishing.
4. (Back) For a short record of his service in France see: Seymour, J W D. (1921). Memorial volume of the American field service in France, ‘Friends of France’, 1914-1917. Boston: American Field Service. pp 81-82.
5. (Back) Seymour, History, Volume II (Op.Cit.) pp 43-62.
6. (Back) Feuss, (Op.Cit.) p 68. The Bell Tower was rededicated in 2006; The academy’s programme for that rededication may be found here.