Journal Opinion April 5, 2017
One hundred years ago this week the United States declared war. Between April 1917 and November 1918, the nation sent 2 million men to Europe to fight in “the war to end all wars.” 16,000 Vermonters and over 20,000 from New Hampshire joined that force. Hundreds did not return.
This column is the first of two on the impact of that war on local residents. This one will describe the role of local men in the struggle and a later one will chronicle the impact on the home front. Town histories, online sources and “Vermont in the World War” by Harold P. Shelton provided background.
By 1917, the war had been going on for three years. The Allied nations of Great Britain, France and Russia were pitted against the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. By the time the war ended in 1918, there were 31 million military and civilian casualties.
The machines of the Industrial Revolution were turned against the soldiers and sailors of the two sides. Tanks, trucks, airplanes, poison gas, machine guns, submarines and heavy artillery all took their toll.
Battles were fought by millions of men and the mega-casualties reflected those larger numbers. On the 525-mile Western Front, French and British troops faced the enemy. Major battles often resulted in insignificant advancement and the same territory was repeatedly won, lost and perhaps won again.
The number of casualties were staggering. In the First Battle of the Marne in 1914, 500,000 were either wounded or killed. The 1916 Battle of Verdun between French and German armies was the longest and most costly battle. Between the two sides there were 714,00 casualties. It was suggested that the battle “consumed all the young men of a medium-sized town every day for 10 months.”
At the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, the British suffered over 57,000 casualties on the first day of the battle.
Russia was pitted against the Central Powers on the Eastern Front and after the two sides suffered 12 million casualties the Russian monarchy was overthrown and Russia withdrew from the war.
By 1917, stalemate characterized the conflict on the Western Front, even as Germany was able to concentrate its forces there. Germany turned to unrestricted submarine warfare against ships carrying supplies from the United States to the Allies. As a result, President Wilson called for a declaration of war.
Vermont and New Hampshire soldiers, sailors and nurses served in hundreds of Army and Navy units. Local records show that they served in cavalry, machine gun, infantry, aviation, armored, chemical and artillery units. They also served as truck drivers, horse and mule handlers, aero plane mechanics, signal men, ambulance drivers, musicians and in the medical services.
They served as privates and officers, serving at home and abroad. Many died in service. There were those who were killed in action and others who died from the influenza epidemic.
The following from the official Vermont Roster lists each community followed by the total number of individuals that served, the number killed in action or died in service and the number wounded.
Orange County: Bradford 79,3,5; Corinth 33,3,1; Fairlee 16,0,0; Newbury 93,4,8; Thetford 42,4,3; Topsham 20,2,1; West Fairlee 12,0,0. Caledonia County: Groton 36,1,3; Ryegate 52,2,2. Vermont total casualties were 642 killed and 886 wounded.
New Hampshire figures taken from other sources: Bath 31, 2, N/A; Orford 38, 4, N/A; Piermont: 16,1, N/A; Haverhill 136,4,12; Lyme 36; Warren 23,2, N/A. New Hampshire suffered a total of 697 killed. Those who died in service of illness or non-combat accidents include Lee Parker and nurse Josephine Barrett of Bradford, Charles Spear of Newbury, John Ross of Haverhill, William Greenleaf of Corinth, George Clayburn of Piermont and Byron Buchanan of Ryegate.
Among those who died from combat wounds were Arthur Currie of Orford, Earl Brock of Newbury, Alexander Wilson of Bath, Clarence Robinson of Post Mills, Arthur Jesseman of Warren and Walter Mason of Topsham.
Many soldiers and units received commendations for their actions. The Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism was awarded posthumously to Maj. Fred Cook of Post Mills. It was said that Cook “was an inspiration to his men and that they would follow him in the face of murderous fire.” Cook was killed while “directing an attack on a strongly entrenched machine-gun position.”
The British and French governments also bestowed recognition on Americans. The French Croix de Guerre was presented to privates Ralph Lyman of Bradford and Preston Slack of Thetford for actions under fire. Lyman was recognized for rescuing his wounded officer. Slack for carrying messages while under “violent artillery and machine-gun fire.” His story is especially interesting because he was initially rejected for service because he had hammer toes. He went to a surgeon and had his feet surgically altered to allow him to serve.
Vermonters served in every division that saw action in France. The 26th Division is representative of the units in which local men served. Known as the Yankee Division, this unit of 28,000 included 1,764 men from Vermont and 2,700 from New Hampshire along with those from other New England states.
Like the famous Rainbow Division, the 26th integrated soldiers from a number of states in order to avoid the impact of a large number of local soldiers becoming casualties simultaneously. Both divisions were part of the American Expeditionary Force under the command of General John J. Pershing.
The 26th began sailing for France August 1917 and was the first complete American division to arrive there. What they found was a situation “so intense that no time could be allowed in which the newcomers might adjust themselves to the terrible work set out for them to do.”
In February 1918, the division went into battle in support of war-weary French troops at Chemin des Dames. This was the division’s first exposure to trench and gas warfare.
That spring and summer, the Yankee Division responded to the German offensive at Toul and Chateau-Thierry. At one point Germans threatened to capture Paris. The response by the 26th gained the soldiers the title “Saviors of Paris.”
In his book, Shelton describes one night during the battle of Chateau-Thierry. “The night was hot, black and thunderous. To the infernal roar of the artillery the heavens added the tumult of a terrific thunder storm. The world had become an inferno of flame, water and flying hissing steel.”
The New England men suffered greatly at Chateau-Thierry. They were involved in eight days of continuous fighting, often without food. In that battle 594 were killed, 1,254 seriously wounded and 169 severely gassed. Replacements from other parts of the nation joined the division’s depleted ranks.
That summer, Vermonters in Army and Marine divisions coordinated with British and French troops to prevent a major German offensive at Belleau Wood. “The Huns paid dearly.” As with earlier engagements, the New Englanders won considerable praise from their allies.
In a drive to bring the war to an end, the Allies fought battles at St. Mihiel and the Argonne Forest. It included “heavy fighting on the most terrible terrain” with concrete pill boxes, machine gun nests, barbed wire and hand-to-hand combat.
Despite rumors among the Germans that the savage Yankees scalped and tortured prisoners, many Germans volunteered to surrender.
In the closing hours of the war, men of the 26th were order to storm Hill 265 with casualties resulting. Those who made that decision indicated, “the enemy must not be allow to discern any slight sign of weakness” less that encourage them to fight on.
During the war, a number of letters from local soldiers were printed in The United Opinion. Addressed from “somewhere in France” or Britain and passed by the military censors, they gave very few details of combat. A letter from Irving L. Preble of Piermont reflected a less than explicit message: “We are having a fine time in France as there is plenty of excitement mixed in to break the monotony.”
In a more realistic vein, Pvt. Royal Downing of Wells River wrote “Been at the front continually…came through unharmed, although mighty good not to hear the big guns or smell gas continually.”
More frequently, there was mention of the blessings of a warm bath, clean clothes, a hot meal, undisturbed sleep and a chance to talk with a pretty woman. The writers reported the joy of receiving letters and packages from home.
Two letters are of particular interest. John Russell wrote to his parents in Newbury in March 1918 of the housing of troops “in an enormous cave, formerly a chalk mine. The capacity was upward of five thousand. Good bunks, electric lights, a canteen, reading room” were a few of its features.
This past month the Smithsonian Channel had a program on that cave, mentioning that members of the Yankee Division were among those that occupied that “underground city” at one time.
The one letter that provided details of the conflict was written by Capt. Ernest Harmon of the 2nd U.S. Calvary and address to his wife in West Newbury. He wrote at length of his participation in the largest cavalry engagement of the war during the St. Mihiel salient in September 1918.
“The roads were full of German prisoners and wounded men while all thru the fields were scores of fresh corpses and mangled bodies,” Harmon wrote. He described leading a cavalry unit forward, being lightly wounded several times and having a horse shot out from under him.
“I had not slept for three days and at one point nearly fell out of my saddle from sheer exhaustion and strain. I am lucky. I have had a hundred chances to die.”
Harmon survived, was a general in World War II and went on to become president of Norwich University.
Lt. Harold Haskins of Bradford, one of three Haskins brothers to enter the service, fought with the 313 Field Artillery Regiment of the 80th Division. He was often sent forward to relay information on enemy positions back to the artillery.
When speaking to my history class, he recalled a rainy night when, knee deep in mud, he came under a gas attack. Without lights and wearing his gas mask he struggled to put a gas mask on his horse. It was an episode, he said, he would never forget.
On Nov 11, 1918 at 11 a.m. the war came to an end. The influence of American troops and supplies had favored the Allies. Less than 30%of the original members of the Yankee Division remained. The rest were either casualties or transfers. All were ready to come home.
Between the end of the war and the beginning of transport home in March, the troops were held in camp. Some took the opportunity to explore the French countryside and, in some cases, stayed away from camp longer than their passes allowed.
As the 26th was the longest serving American division they received a presidential visit at Christmas. Accompanied by Gen. Pershing, President Wilson inspected the troops, visited their quarters and asked to eat a holiday meal similar to that enjoyed by the men.
On April 4, the first ship load of returning soldiers landed in Boston. On April 25th, a full-dressed parade was held at nearby Camp Devens before an estimated crowd of 300,000. Local communities such as Ryegate and Bradford welcomed soldiers home with celebrations.
As with the soldiers of the Civil War, the conflict’s physical and emotional wounds continued for a lifetime for some. Shelton wrote that many disillusioned veterans believed “the paths of glory lead to hell.” They would, he wrote, “be haunted…by nightmare dreams of horrors unspeakable.”
Just as the veterans of the earlier conflict created GAR posts, these veterans created American Legion Posts. Local posts included ones in Haverhill, Newbury and Bradford.
Beginning in 1919, November 11 was commemorated annually as Armistice Day. It became a national holiday in 1938 and in 1954 was changed to Veterans Day to honor veterans of other conflicts. That day is set aside to recall the service and sacrifice of our armed forces.
And we have not forgotten that service and sacrifice. On April 6 at 7 p.m. the Bradford Historical Society will present a program honoring the Bradford residents who participated in the Great War. Entitled “A Salute to World War I: Bradford Answered the Call,” personal stories will be told, war-related songs will be recalled, and letters from the front will be read.
The society’s new museum exhibit “Bradford in World War I: At Home and Abroad” will be available for viewing that evening from 6 to 7 p.m., following the presentation and during open hours through October. While the display’s focus is on Bradford, the artifacts and photographs are representative of all area communities and all are welcome to this free program and exhibit.