Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Great War, My Great Uncle, The Model 1911, and The Distinguished Service Cross

In this centennial year of the Model 1911 .45 ACP, I suspect everyone will rehash the history and popularity of the pistol. They’ll discuss how it evolved and how it’s still relevant today. I want to do a different take and explain how the pistol has affected my life. I believe the Model 1911 is greater than the sum of its parts and it has had a profound effect on people as well as history.

The saddest expression I ever saw on my Grandmother’s face was during the only time she mentioned the loss of her brother in World War I. In her cultured Maryland-Southern accent she described the news of his death in action in France as “such a terrible blow”. All I had ever seen of him was a few old photographs and a news paper clipping. My father, was named after my Great Uncle, had an officer’s dress sword; my Great Aunt Florence received his medal.

For years, I had assumed he was one of thousands of ordinary soldiers lost in that conflict. He was one of many, from all sides, who contributed to the grim statistics of the Great War. World War I is really a forgotten war, over showed by the struggle and glory of World War II and the pain and anguish of Korea and Vietnam. No one can quickly articulate why the United States became involved, the significance of the sinking of the Lusitania, or the Zimmerman telegram are lost to all but a few history buffs and academics.

How does this connect to a Model 1911 pistol? Well, years later, after I had embarked on my own military career, I decided to research the man and his exploits. What I found filled me with pride and patriotism. The Model 1911 figures in this.

My great uncle was born in 1894 and grew up in Maryland, on a farm outside of Baltimore. He graduated from St. John’s College in Annapolis. St John’s was a military school at that time. After graduation he joined the Army as 2Lt and assigned to duty on the Mexican Border. After the declaration of war in 1917 he quickly went to France in the first contingent of Americans. After training with the French and British, he trained arriving American soldiers in the ways of trench warfare. He was eventually assigned to Company I, 18th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division.

His citation for the Distinguished Service Cross reads:
The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 9, 1918, takes pride in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross (Posthumously) to Captain (Infantry) Harry J. Selby, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism in action while serving with 18th Infantry Regiment, 1st Division, A.E.F., near Exermont, France, 4 October 1918. Captain Selby led his battalion in the attack through heavy artillery and machine-gun fire. On one occasion he opened fire upon an enemy machine-gun nest with his pistol, thus drawing its fire while others made a successful flank attack.

Another account reads:
1st Div Citation for Gallantry in Action, French Croix de Guerre (Palm) Capt Selby displayed great bravery and coolness at the head of a battalion which he brilliantly led to the attack on October 4, 1918. During the succeeding days he exerted himself to the utmost, encouraging his men by his imperturbable calm under enemy artillery and machinegun fire. Was mortally wounded October 9, 1918.

An account signed by Marshall Petain:
While in the Argonne, the Major of his battalion was gassed. Capt. Selby was immediately put in command of the battalion and led it for three days of the hardest fighting. Besides being cited in Division orders December 8th, 1st. Division, A. E. F., the Marshal of France, Commander in Chief of the French armies of the East, cites in the order of the Army:" Capt. H. J. Selby, 18th Regt, U. S. Infantry, displayed great bravery and coolness at the head of a battalion which he brilliantly led to the attack, October 4, 1918. He did not spare himself during the days following, encouraging his men by his great calm under the fire of enemy guns and machine guns. Fatally wounded October 9, 1918." (Signed) Petain, Commander-in-chief." Capt. Selby won the admiration and friendship of every officer in the Regiment, and all the men under his command say he was the bravest man they ever saw.

In those days pistol meant exactly that, a Model 1911 pistol. Narratives of the day did not use the terms interchangeably. Citations mentioned revolvers, if that was used. So, as a 23 year old Battalion Commander, he pinned down a German Machinegun nest with a pistol and led his men until fatally wounded. Certainly deserving of a Distingusished Service Cross.

Dedicated to the memory of CAPT Harry J. Selby (1894-1918) Aged 23 years, Company I, 18th Infantry Regiment 1st Infantry Division.


  1. I thought that you'd like to know that here in France WW1 and the brave men who came to fight are not at all forgotten.

  2. Hello, cousin! I'm also Harry Selby's great-niece. My grandfather was William Bryant Selby, Harry's oldest brother. I have more family history, and somewhere, I also have a photo of Harry and his medals, a letter he wrote home to his mother, and more!

    1. Barb! please email me at kbmakel@aol.com, my grandmother was Esther Selby. I have a lot of information on Ancestry.com, I'd love to see Harry's picture, ,my father, born in 1920 was named after him.