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  • Writer's pictureDennis McCaslin

Casualty of WWI Battle of Argonne Forest in France lies in unmarked grave in rural Polk County cemetery

Geographically, the total distance between Ink, Arkansas in Polk County and Muese, France in the Argonne Forest region is 4,976 miles.

Culturally, the tiny section of southeast Arkansas and the area which was the site of one of the most deadly and influential battles of World War I may even be further apart.  But there is a connection, and that connection is an unmarked grave in the Concord Cemetery. 

Located just a stone's throw off State Highway 88 ten miles due east of Mena, the pastoral graveyard contains the final remains of 838 individuals, many of them belonging to the pioneering families of that part of Polk County. 

An unmarked grave, where the family of Private Robert I. Hilton laid his body to rest nearly three years after he was killed on the battlefield in France, is hardly a fitting reminder to the sacrifice the young man made in service to his country. 

Hilton, who was one of 26,277 Americans who died in one of the deadliest battles of the largest offensive in United States military history, was killed on the battleground in the presence of one of his friends from Polk County approximately four weeks before Armistice was declared and the bitter war ended.

Camp Pike, North Little Rock

Hilton, who was 19 years old when he left Polk County in 1918 for truncated training at Camp Pike (now Camp Robinson) in North Little Rock, found himself on the battlefield in a little more than three months after he left his family home in Ink. Prior to heading off for military service, Hilton was married to his childhood sweetheart who was pregnant with his first child at the time of his induction into the army.

Sadly, many of the soldiers that were rushed off the war during that time period were very undertrained and inexperienced. 

Hilton enrolled in the army in Mena on June 24, 1918. On August 18, less than two months later, he landed at Brest, France and in the latter part of that month move forward with his platoon to the Argonne Forest.

In the days leading up to his battlefield death, Hilton was part of the First Army Expedition Force that join with members of the Missouri and Kansas National Guard who tried to break through the strong hold of the Hindenburg line but were repulsed due to inexperience and poor leadership.

Among the soldiers in his platoon was a fellow Arkansas from Polk County by the name of Lewis Tillery. In a contemporary news report after the death of Hilton, Tillery provided details of the demise of his wartime friend. 

Hillary a d Hilton thought for twenty-one consecutive days or before being pulled back from the front for a ten-day rest period. Shortly after was when Hilton's death occurred from a wound to the head.

"We had gone over the top side by side many times and neither one of us had ever received a scratch," Tillery told the Mena Star Weekly. "We were laying in a trench about 200 yards from the enemy when a explosive shell from a long-range gun burst over the top of us."

Tillery said a piece of the shrapnel from that shell struck Hilton in the forehead. 

"I called the first aid man but he looked at Hilton and said there was nothing he could do for him", said Tillery. "He lived for about an hour and a half afterwards and he and I concersed the entire time before he lost consciousness."

Shortly after the final call to advance came and Tillery said he and the troops went back into the battle. He never saw Hilton again.

While Hilton and Tillery talked in the last 90 minutes of the young man's life, Hilton asked Tillery to return a souvenir, a small German medicine glass, to his wife.

Tillery, who was born and raised in Cove, kept his promise to his friend and brought the medicine glass back to Mrs. Hilton several months after the war had ended where he got the opportunity to meet Mrs. Hilton and the baby son of his fallen comrade on his return to Polk County. 

In the aftermath of the war and all the chaos from the large number of casualties from the final few weeks of the battle, Hilton's body was not returned to Ink until October of 2021. He was buried with full military honors in the Concord Cemetery at Ink and a firing squad from the Frank Fried Post of the American legion fired the required gun salute. 

Reverend j McEwen of Waters was in charge of the service, bugler Henry Tucker sounded taps, and a large crowd  bowed their heads to pay the last tribute to the respect of the young man who gave up his life in service to his country in the remote region of France.

Historians says the final push through the Hun forces in the Argonne Forest region was the straw that finally broke the camel's back of the German command, forcing the capitulation of the war to the opposing troops and bringing worldwide peace for at least a few years.

Attempts are underway currently to try and obtain a headstone for the grave of Private Robert I Hilton.

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