The Short, Heroic Life of Philip Comfort Starr

Gazette Article by: Duff Peterson
Appeared in the Gazette: Spring 2010

Editor’s Note: Not all of Winnetka’s streets are named after trees. If you’ve ever wondered about the stories behind the familiar street names in Winnetka the following article takes us back to World War I, and is particularly timely in light of our upcoming exhibit, Winnetka at War, which is described in the curator’s column on page 2.

In December 1919 the real estate firm of McGuire & Orr announced the opening of the Winnetka Heights subdivision bounded by Westmoor (then called Fig Street), Locust, Pine and Rosewood. The subdivision’s two new streets were named after two young Winnetka men who had recently been killed in the First World War, Dinsmore Ely and Philip Comfort Starr.

Philip Starr was born in Chicago in 1890 and moved with his family to Winnetka in 1892. His father, Merritt Starr, was a prominent Chicago lawyer who argued many cases in the appellate courts. He also helped to organize the New Trier school district in 1899 and served as the first president of the New Trier Board of Education. An acquaintance of Theodore Roosevelt, he was instrumental in promoting the former President’s legacy in speeches and writings after the latter’s death in 1919.

Philip Starr grew up on Maple Street between Cherry and Oak. As a boy, he played on the wreckage of the Lady Elgin lying on the beach at the end of Spruce. He briefly attended New Trier, and then transferred to the Thacher School in Ojai, California, where he was known as the best shot and the best horseman in the school. After two years at Thacher, he transferred again, to Milton Academy in Massachusetts. From there he went to Cornell University, but later transferred to Harvard as a member of the Class of 1914. After two years at Harvard, he dropped out to take a job in an engineering firm, but became dissatisfied with that after a year and took up farming. In June 1916 he went to Toronto, enlisted as a private in the 70th Battery of the Canadian Field Artillery, and became a naturalized British citizen. (The United States would not enter the war for another 10 months.) His riding, shooting and outdoor skills helped him advance rapidly in the Canadian Army, and his superiors arranged for him to go to the Royal Artillery Officers’ School in Kingston, Ontario during the winter of 1916-1917.

He was commissioned as a First Lieutenant and sent to the Royal College of Engineering at Chatham in June 1917. His course focused on the rapid construction of pontoon bridges, an essential element of the land war in northern France and Belgium, a region laced with rivers and canals. On completing his training, he was sent to the Western Front at Ypres, Belgium on December 15, 1917.

In Ypres, the young Winnetkan encountered a scene of utter devastation. Three years of artillery bombardment had turned the formerly verdant fields of Belgium into a muddy, pitted wasteland. Over a million men had been killed or wounded in the area since 1914, making Ypres one of the bloodiest places in the history of warfare.

In an effort to break the stalemate, each side had used chemical weapons on the other, resulting in hideous respiratory damage, blindness and agonizing death to thousands of soldiers. Yet despite all this expenditure of blood and ordinance, neither side had made significant gains, and still faced each other in an endless series of trenches separated by a few hundred yards of mud and debris known as No Man’s Land.

As an engineer, Starr had responsibility for the fortifications in No Man’s Land protecting a section of Allied trenches. While inspecting the works on the night of February 20, 1918, he came under enemy fire and was shot in the head. He was buried with full honors at Bedford House, a military cemetery near Ypres.

In the cable announcing his death, the British War Office said: “A gallant officer, he poured out the ‘sweet red wine of youth’ fighting for us, and this day, upon his brow, we place the well-earned laurel, and in the great heart of this community there arises a spiritual altar before which we kneel and do him reverence.”

Starr’s younger brother, named Merritt after their father, enlisted in the U.S. Medical Reserve Corps in May 1917 and served until after the Armistice. He and his wife Elizabeth had a baby boy in June 1918 whom they named Philip Comfort Starr.

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5 Responses to “The Short, Heroic Life of Philip Comfort Starr”

  1. December 22, 2018 at 11:51 PM #

    Thanks for this blog. I recently went on a WW1 battlefields tour and we were all given a soldier to research, and I had Phillip Starr. It would be great to be in contact with any of his family if you know how to reach them as we visited his grave.

    Annemarie Caracciolo

  2. January 3, 2019 at 10:13 PM #

    Hi Annemarie, I’ll send you an email!
    Rachel Ramirez, Curator

  3. September 4, 2020 at 8:05 PM #

    Hi Annemarie,
    Just today, I felt compelled to review words about my great uncle, Lt. Philip Comfort Starr, and found your note. His brother, Dr. Merritt Paul Starr, was my grandfather, who lived in Pasadena, later and his son, my father, Dr. Merritt Starr, lived in Anchorage. I am in Los Angeles now. I visited his grave in Ypres also, in 2016, and felt that he was buried with such great care in the company of such great men, all heroes.
    please feel free to contact me if you would wish.

  4. November 15, 2021 at 11:46 AM #

    Hi Sarah,
    There’s a program in Belgium called ‘Adopt a U.S. Tommy’ that gives you the opportunity to adopt a grave of a US resident serving under the Commonwealth during World War I and is buried in Flanders Fields. The initiative was put together to honor those who fell in battle. I was appointed to honor your great uncle Philip Comfort Starr. I would love to get in touch, if you would be willing to of course. All the best! Maïté Van den Broucke

  5. July 24, 2023 at 12:21 PM #

    Hello, Sarah: I was on the faculty of The Thacher School, where your great uncle spent some of his high school years. In August of 2015, on a quest to find and honor the graves of all the Thacher students who died in The Great War, I was privileged to find his grave at Bedford House Cemetery outside Ypres. I wonder: on your visit to his grave site a year later, did you find the American flag and Thacher banner that I left there?

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