Private Robert H. Barker was a native of Hanson, Massachusetts and a 1914 graduate of Brockton High School, Brockton, Massachusetts. Bob was born on 20 March 1894 to Albert F. and Lucy Barker. At the age of fifteen, he was enrolled in a YMCA class. Due to his physical size, he was placed with the older boys; and he won the all-around athletic contest. An injured knee prevented his taking a prominent part in school athletics; nevertheless, he was a leader in his class at Brockton High School. He entered Rhode Island State College (RISC) with the class of 1918, majoring in Agriculture. He was a member of Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity and participated in the Army ROTC program while a student at RISC.
When the United States entered World War I, there were 562 male students enrolled at Rhode Island State College, 334 left to serve in WWI. Robert, like so many of his classmates, left college after his freshman year; and he enlisted in the American Field Service on 19 May 1917 and sailed for France. The American Field Service was a group of young men serving the French Army. It was a volunteer force of Americans who enlisted and pledged themselves to the French Army for a limited period.
Private Barker was assigned to the French Transport Motor Unit 184 in the Camion Branch, Ambulance Service, until 13 November 1917. He was an excellent driver and a responsible soldier. In October, he enlisted in the United States Army as a member of the Mallet Reserve; and at the same time, he applied for a transfer to the Infantry. His transfer was approved; and he was assigned to the 16th Infantry Regiment, First Infantry Division (Big Red One) as a private in March 1918. He wrote to his father, “Someone in the family ought to do their bit, and that bit should be a mighty big piece.” Bob believed he was the logical one to do it. From that time on, his family received no word until they were notified of his death. The 16th Infantry Regiment was kept so busy in the trenches that only two lots of mail were delivered and none sent out.
A fellow soldier tells of Robert’s service as the Company Commander’s Signal Man and the zest with which he undertook dangerous assignments such as night patrols and scouting near the German lines. Robert loved his fellow soldiers, particularly the rough, tobacco-chewing, big-hearted “buddies” of whom he wrote companionably, looking past their external coarseness into the goodness of their hearts. As he said in his last letter, “The army… creates a brotherly feeling among us all.” It is fitting that these should be the last words from one who found in life so many brothers.
On the morning of 20 July 1918, Company I, 16th Infantry Regiment, pushed through the wheat fields in the outskirts of Soissons, France, occupying the post of honor in the center of the counterattack. The company’s objectives had almost been reached with only slight casualties, when suddenly the men found themselves on the parapet of an occupied German trench; and at the same moment, a terrible cross fire broke out from hidden machine guns. The company had no orders to retire, so they stayed in their positions. Company I was extricated from the trap a few days later. At roll call, Company I numbered twenty-four enlisted men and no officers. Private Robert Barker was listed among the “Missing in Action.” Private Robert Barker was in the midst of it fighting when he was struck down. No one knows how long he laid on the battlefield wounded. He was finally discovered and evacuated to an American hospital outside of Paris. On 10 August 1918, he died from the wounds received in The Battle of Soissons.
Private Robert Harris Barker, United States Army, Infantry was involved in combat operations throughout his assignment with the First Infantry Division. He volunteered twice — once to support the French Army and again as an Infantryman with the Big Red One supporting the cause of Liberty and Justice. Private Barker was buried with full military honors in the American Cemetery near Suresnes, France. His body was later transferred to Fern Hill Cemetery in Hanson, Massachusetts. Private Robert Harris Barker is a University of Rhode Island and American Hero who gave his life in the cause of freedom during the “Great War.”