August 31

This Day in History

World War I

Aug 31, 1916:

American soldier Harry Butters killed in the Battle of the Somme

On this day in 1916, Harry Butters, an American soldier serving in the British army during World War I, is killed by a German shell during the Battle of the Somme, while fighting to secure the town of Guillemont, France.

The son of a prominent San Francisco industrialist, Butters was raised partially in England and schooled there at Beaumont College, a Jesuit academy in Old Windsor. He later attended Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, before inheriting his father’s fortune upon the latter’s death in 1906 and moving back to California, where he worked briefly for Standard Oil and purchased his own ranch. When World War I broke out in the summer of 1914, Butters rallied to the Allied cause and decided to join the British army. Through his old school connections in England, he received a commission in the Royal Artillery, 24th Division, 107th Brigade in April 1915. In September, Butters traveled to France with his comrades, where he took part in the ill-executed British attack during the Battle of Loos later that month.

"I find myself a soldier among millions of others in the great allied armies fighting for all I believe right and civilized and humane against a power which is evil and threatens the existence of all the rights we prize and the freedom we enjoy," Butters wrote home on October 5, 1915, describing his experiences on the battlefield at Loos. "It may seem to you that for me this is all quite uncalled for, that it can only mean either the supreme sacrifice for nothing or at best some of the best years of my life wasted;  but I tell you that I am not only willing to give my life to this enterprise (for that is comparatively easy except when I think of you), but that I firmly believe—if I live through it to spend a useful lifetime with you—that never will I have the opportunity to gain so much honorable advancement for my own soul, or to do so much for the cause of the world's progress, as I am here daily...I think less of myself than I did, less of the heights of personal success I aspired to climb, and more of the service that each of us must render in payment for the right to live and by virtue of which only we can progress."

Butters was on the front lines near the Belgian village of Ploegsteert in April 1916 when he met Winston Churchill; Churchill was serving as a battalion commander on the Western Front after leaving the British Admiralty in the wake of the disastrous Allied operations on the Gallipoli Peninsula the previous year. Impressed by the young American volunteering in service to England—"I just lied to ‘em and said I was British born," Butters told Churchill, explaining his commission in the Royal Artillery—Churchill invited Butters to dine with him in his bunker, where the two men ate and drank champagne on the evening of April 11. After suffering from shell shock—the newly diagnosed psychological trauma of battle—Butters was sent on leave in June. Although Churchill, then back in London, urged Butters to take his time before returning to service, he went back to the Western Front on July 2, one day after the Allies launched the epic Battle of the Somme.

On August 31, 1916, Butters and his unit were at the Somme, firing on Trones Woods, outside Guillemont, when his gun received a direct German hit during a massive barrage; he and all the members of his battery were killed. "I don’t exaggerate when I say nearly 100,000 shells dropped that day in an area of about 800 square yards," wrote Reverend A. Caseby in his diary entry recounting Butters’ death. Butters was buried in the Commonwealth Graves Commission Cemetery at Meulte, a little village south of Albert, France. In accordance with a request he made in late August to a British chaplain, his gravestone reads simply "An American Citizen."

Churchill himself wrote a memorial to Butters in the London Observer: "He had seen much service on the front line, including the battle of Loos, and came through unscathed until in June last a bouquet of shells destroyed his observation post and stunned him. He could be induced to take only a week's rest before he was back at the front, disdainful as ever of the continual threats of death. And thus, quite simply, he met his fate. He was one of the brightest, cheeriest boys I have ever known, and always the life and soul of the mess. We realize his nobility in coming to the help of another country entirely of his own free will, and understand what a big heart he had."

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