Christmas Without Ashford

By Stephen D. Bowling

Christmas 1917 was especially difficult for Hiram and Polly Watts of Leatherwood. Two of their children were now gone. Their first loss, Adelia Watts, struggled for life from the moment of birth and died at the age of four in 1902.  The new pain they now endured came from the vacant chair left by the recent tragic death of their son, Ashford.

Ashford Watts while he was a student at Riverside Christian Training School.

Ashford Watts was one of the throngs of Breathitt County men and boys who rushed to volunteer for a chance to “Kick the Kaiser” at the beginning of World War I.  As the patriotic spirit soared, Ashford enlisted in Company F, Second Kentucky Infantry along with many boys from the Lost Creek area of Breathitt County on April 9, 1917. He and his company were assigned to Eastern Kentucky to guard vital railroad tunnels that helped supply coal to the cities of Central Kentucky and the war effort.

While walking his guard duty post guarding a train tunnel on the night of May 13, 1917, he walked to the end of a tunnel to get a drink of water not long after his shift started. As he approached the lower end of the cut of the tunnel near the community of Aden in Carter County, a C & O Fast Passenger Train exited while coasting downhill at a high rate of speed and struck Private Watts just after midnight. He suffered a severe blow to the head while trying to get out of the way of the quietly moving train. His clothes snagged on the train which dragged his body for some distance.

According to the official report, Watts’ skull was crushed, and his body was “otherwise mutilated.” Ashford Watts died instantly and became the first Breathitt County casualty of World War I.  There would be others to follow.

Ambrose Watt’s Kentucky Death Certificate incorrectly identifies his place of death at Salisbury rather than Aden as indicated in the United States Army’s more informed official report. The official time of death is listed as 1:30 a.m. after the Coroner arrived on the scene of the accident.
News of Ashford Watts’s death appeared on page 5 of The Kingsport Times (Kingsport, Tennessee) on Thursday, May 17, 1917. It was reprinted from the Carter County, Kentucky newspaper.

Ambrose Watts’ body was taken to a funeral home in Winchester by the Kentucky National Guard. His remains were brought back to Jackson on an L&N train by Captain Brack Short, the army chaplain, a bugler, and his cousin, Roscoe Neace. The family met the train at Haddix.

Chaplain Demoss visited with the family and offered words of comfort in an attempt to soothe them. An army bugler stood across the railroad tracks from the Haddix Depot and filled the valley with the sad refrains of Taps. The family loaded Ashford’s casket into the back of a wagon and started for Leatherwood. The next day, family and friends laid the mortal shell of Ashford Watts in the grave prepared for him near his sister at the Nathan Noble Cemetery. He was 22.

Hiram and Polly (Noble) Watts and their remaining twelve children passed Christmas in the same ways that many American families will be passing this one- a family member short.

Hiram and Polly (Noble) Watts with eleven of their 14 children including Ashford (front row, third from left).

This Christmas and every day let us pause to thank the men and women of the American Armed Forces and remember those soldiers, like Ashford Watts, whose loss will always weigh heaviest upon the minds and hearts of their families each Christmas.  Let us remember the sacrifices of those who are now serving to keep us free and safe and those who offered their lives as a living testament to the eternal desire for freedom and the need to protect it.

Ashford Watts’ military tombstone at the Nathan Noble Cemetery at Watts.

© 2022 Stephen D. Bowling

About sdbowling

Director of the Breathitt County Public Library and Heritage Center in Jackson, Kentucky.
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