Every day, hundreds of people walk or drive by an impressive, if somewhat understated, bronze tablet mounted on a large rock, "sacred to the men of Harford County who made the supreme sacrifice during The World War," that sits in front of the Gen. Milton Reckord Armory at sidewalk level along North Main Street in Bel Air.
The tablet bears 45 names, all men, and the dates of their deaths during World I, the earliest in January 1918 and the latest in June 1919, a full nine months after the armistice was signed to end the fighting. Some of the surnames will be familiar to longtime Harford residents, such as Cullum, Heaps, Keithley, Osborne, Pyle and Spencer.
This past Saturday marked the 100th anniversary of what is generally considered the fuse that sparked a global conflict that became known then and now as "The War to End All Wars," the June 28, 1914 assassination of the Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, and his wife, in the Balkan city of Sarajevo, then part of the Austria-Hungary Empire.
A month later, all of Europe was at war, and it would be another four years and three months — and more than 9 million dead — before the fighting stopped. That 9 million figure is for military deaths from combat, accidents, disease or as prisoners. There were millions of civilian deaths directly attributed to the conflict, plus tens of millions more from the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-20 that the war is believed to have helped spread around the world. Estimates of civilian deaths linked to the war vary widely.
Among the Harford County men who died fighting in the war, 43 were white men and two were "colored," as the latter two names are so designated in bronze, reflecting the Jim Crow segregation views of the county's white majority at the time of the memorial's erection. (The World War I names also appear, without racial designation, on the memorial to all the county's war dead erected next to Bel Air Town Hall in the 1980s.)
At least 70 others suffered from some severe and many times disabling injuries as a result of their war service, according to research by John "Jack" Jones, who wrote extensively about Harford's World War I military heritage in two volumes of the Harford Historical Bulletin published by the Historical Society of Harford County in the summer and fall of 2010. (Both editions are available from the society's headquarters at 143 N. Main St. in Bel Air.)
Jones, a retired educator and active volunteer at the historical society, spent over a year studying the war and its impact in writing the two bulletin editions with the aid of Jim Chrismer, another longtime society volunteer and the organization's pre-eminent Civil War historian. Jones grew up in Whiteford, lived many years in Fallston and now lives in a retirement community in Red Lion, Pa.
His Mason-Dixon heritage brought Jones in contact with a packet of letters, written from the front by Robert Wheeler, an Army soldier from Delta, Pa., that is part of the collection of Delta's Old Line Museum. Jones was acquainted with Wheeler's family and his interest in the war widened to the point that his research became a "labor of love," but also laborious, because there wasn't much written about the history of the war and Harford County, with the exception of the various newspapers articles from The Aegis, as well as from other papers of the time that did not survive.
The memorial in front of the armory was dedicated on July 13, 1923, almost five years after the armistice. Judging from a photograph that survives, a large crowd was there, with many people standing on Main Street. It was clearly a warm midsummer day, and many of the men in attendance wore straw hats, and some even stood in shirt sleeves without coats. The women all wore dresses, and a few stood under parasols.
An indelible imprint
For anyone born in the past 60 to 70 years, the First World War, aka The Great War, aka World War I, or simply The World War, as it was certainly known before 1939 (or, as a cynical college professor of mine once said, before "we started numbering our wars"), was your grandfather's war. Today, it's more likely to be great-grandfather's or even great-great grandfather's war.
Such is the passage of time, but there is one thing that is hard to deny: World War I did more to change the face of Harford County than any other conflict before or since.
"Aside from the impact of losing the lives of 45 Harford County citizens," according to Jones, the most significant impact of World War I on Harford County was the establishment of Aberdeen Proving Ground, which Jones says was "positive and negative."
Without the war, there likely would not have been an Aberdeen Proving Ground and all the associated economic and social upheavals the installation has wrought in the ensuing 97 years, since President Woodrow Wilson signed the final document creating a federal weapons proving ground on what were then the tomato and sweet corn fields east of Aberdeen.
"Initially the military establishment was a really negative thing in terms of all the farms it gobbled up [for below market prices]," Jones explained. "Financially, in the long run, [APG] became such a force of economic growth in Harford County...a shot in the arm."
In his writing, Jones described some of the initial chaos: "Over a thousand people were displaced from their community and homes. Churches, stores, schools, barns and industrial sites fell into ruin. Hundreds of tenants and farm laborers were without a livelihood. Harford County lost over 35,000 acres of valuable taxable property. Canners lost many of their suppliers and experienced workers. Tourists – and indeed local commercial fishermen, trappers and hunters – lacked access to some of the most valuable and profitable sporting sites on the East Coast."
"The serenity, traditional mode of existence and a sense of place vanished for a large percentage of county residents."
The president's pen stroke on Oct. 16, 1917 that created APG came barely seven months after the United States had entered what was basically a stalemate between the allied, or entente, powers England and France and the central powers Germany, Austria and the Turkish-dominated Ottoman Empire. The American entry — coming as it did as czarist Russia, previously allied with France and England, was consumed by revolution and on the verge of signing a separate peace — is widely regarded as having tipped the balance in favor of Britain and France.
During 1999, my late colleague Esther Everitt Dombrowski and I spent several months researching and writing about life in Harford County in the previous 99 years. We concluded that the coming of the proving ground, and its subsequent impact on the lives of everyone in Harford County in one way or another, had truly been the local story of the 20th century. It's one that continues to affect lives into the second decade of the 21st century and will mostly likely continue to affect them for decades to come.
While the numbers of people and jobs, money spent, technological and scientific breakthroughs (think computers for one), construction on and off post, environmental issues, supply chain economics and the like can be quantified with regard to APG, be it 1916 or 2014, it's more difficult to fathom the human cost of The World War on Harford's citizens.