Locally, East Boston’s William C. Kelly Square has been referred to as Central Square since the turn of the last century and very few call it by its dedicated name.
Sure, some establishments use William Kelly Square as a return address and even Kelly’s Square Pub offers a nod to the man Central Square was renamed after in the 1920s.
What many don’t know is that William Kelly is buried some 3.500 miles away in the prestigious Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France–located east of the village of Romagne-sous-Montfaucon in Meuse.
The cemetery contains the largest number of American military dead in Europe, most of whom, like Kelly, lost their lives during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive during World War I.
Willie, as he was known while growing up in East Boston, was a personable, friendly, happy and good-looking guy.
Kelly was born in 1890, the second of six children on London St. to Michael J. Kelly from Portland, Maine and Mary Cathcart of East Boston.
“I got almost all of my information about Willie from my father’s (Kelly’s older brother) two older deceased brothers while spending a lot of time with them during summers in the late sixties and seventies,” said Kelly’s great nephew, Dennis Kelly.
Kelly attended East Boston High School and played basketball, and his father owned a funeral home at 11 Meridian St. His father had become successful enough that he bought a house in Winthrop where the Winthrop Machine Gun Company was located, part of the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia (MVM).
As World War I raged across Europe, Kelly ended up in the MVM. However, before leaving for military service he became engaged to Florence Ballem, of Winthrop.
“He did join the MVM, which led to him spending some time in Mexico on the Pancho Villa Expedition,” said Dennis Kelly. “When the MVM was mobilized for service in the European Theater during WWI it was renamed the 101st Regiment as part of the 26 ID Yankee Division.”
Kelly was part of Meuse–Argonne offensive–a major part of the final Allied offensive of the war that stretched along the entire Western Front. It was fought from September 26, 1918, until the Armistice of November 11, 1918.
The battle became the second deadliest battle in American history, resulting in over 350,000 casualties including 26,277 American lives, 28,000 German lives and an unknown number of French lives.
It was here, on Oct. 25,1918 that Kelly was killed in action when an artillery shell hit his machine gun emplacement.
“The family wasn’t notified until after the Armistice was announced,” said Dennis Kelly. “His family decided to have him buried in France because they didn’t have confidence that the Army was correctly identifying the bodies so being interred in France was satisfactory.”
His fiancee, Florence Ballem, never married and dedicated her life to keeping Kelly’s memory alive, lobbying for Central Square to be named in his honor and helped organize a Memorial Military Ball in 1929.
“When she died her brother called my Uncle Joe and told him to come to Winthrop to pick up some of Willie’s things that were there,” said Dennis Kelly. “My uncle Joe said that Willie’s 1917 picture in his Army uniform was on her bedroom dresser with her engagement ring hanging on the picture frame.”
However, Dennis Kelly is upset by one thing that he hopes the city rectifies in the near future. “I am disappointed that after the construction around the oval in Kelly Square, or Central Square, the old metal name plaque honoring William Kelly wasn’t reinstalled,” said Dennis Kelly. “Where is it? Why wasn’t it put back up? I always try to visit the memorial plaque when I am back in Boston and was shocked to realize it wasn’t mounted on the pole at the entrance of the nice green space. I want people to know