Harford and 'The World War,' then and now

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.

Bracing for action

Early on, when the United States was still neutral, the fighting on the European continent still had a foreshadowing effect on Harford, as it did over the rest of Maryland and the nation, particularly as the conflict dragged into its third year.

For the nearly three years leading up to Wilson requesting a declaration of war from Congress on April 2, 1917, Harford County's nearly 28,000 residents and the rest of the country had come to gradually view the conflict in Europe as one that would involve the United States.

Jones notes that John D. Worthington II, editor and publisher of The Aegis, "acknowledged that 'a wide divergence of views' had initially existed among local citizens, but claimed in late March 1917 that a 'universality of patriotic sentiment' prevailed regarding entry to war."

Another local paper, the Harford Democrat, then published in Bel Air and later in Aberdeen, "condemned the [German] Kaiser's 'many acts of inhumanity' and agreed with Wilson's contention that Germany was the 'natural foe of liberty,'" Jones wrote.

As the U.S. entered the war, Leo Moore, editor and publisher of the Havre de Grace Democratic Ledger wrote: "The United States is now at war, not because we want it, but because a foreign nation has thrust it upon us." Jones adds that Moore urged his readers to "pull all our strength forward to protect the Stars and Stripes, and the country we love and honor."

According to Mrs. Dombrowski's research, there was much concern locally about injuries to several Harford County people who had gone to work at a munitions plant at Eddystone, Pa., when the plant blew up in April 1917, right around the time Congress declared war on the Central Powers.

Soon afterward, concern about saboteurs caused the deployment of members of the Pennsylvania National Guard around the McCall's Ferry hydroelectric plant (now Holtwood Dam) on the Susquehanna River just north of Harford County, and members of the National Guard unit based at the Bel Air Armory were routinely called upon to guard the water reservoirs around Baltimore City.

There was a newspaper story about Capt. Allen Tucker from Forest Hill, skipper of the ship New Orleans, already in harm's way as his vessel plied the North Atlantic shipping lanes on constant watch for German U-boats, whose sinking of so-called neutral U.S. ships became the catalyst for the U.S. joining the war.

In June 1917, 1,200 people attended a flag-raising ceremony in Darlington, days before members of the Harford County Red Cross auxiliary sold lemonade at the Bel Air Fairgrounds to raise money for materials to help the troops in anticipation of the fighting to come.

Meanwhile, Jones found records of several local people who enlisted in foreign armies prior to the U.S. involvement, among them, George A. Hopkins, of Whiteford, who joined the Canadian Army, and Ivan F. Nock, of Bel Air, "a grenadier in the Foreign Legion, had twice been wounded by the time the U.S. declared war."

One of the first reported war deaths from the Harford area was J. Wilson Gailey, of Fawn Grove, Pa., an Army ambulance corpsman who was killed in Bordeaux just days after a letter from him arrived home, according to another newspaper account.

Rapid casualties

The 45 dead from Harford County in World War I is a little more than one-third of the number from the county killed in World War II, 131, according to the county memorial in Bel Air. The World War I deaths exceed those locally in both Korean and Vietnam wars, 22 and 33, respectively.

Most of the Harford World War I deaths occurred in less than three months between September 1918 and the signing of the armistice on Nov. 11, although there were exceptions. Pvt. Robert V. Cullum's death date on the armory memorial is Jan. 12, 1918, making his the earliest, while Fireman Samuel Conrad Witsotzkey died on June 14, 1918.

One soldier, Pvt. Edward Asbury, died on Nov. 10, 1918, the day before the armistice, while another, Pvt. Leslie Paret Glen, died on Nov. 11. There were seven post-armistice deaths, with the last, Sgt. Maj. Robert Asbury, occurring on June 14, 1919.

Jones notes that the deaths could have as well been from disease as from wounds suffered while fighting. World War I is credited with spawning a number of medical advances that would keep soldiers in future wars alive who would not have been as fortunate had they been fighting from 1914 to 1918.

Various historical documents, most prominently the Reckord Armory's Maryland Historical Trust survey, estimate 1,100 men from Harford County were mustered into to Allied Expeditionary Force, among them Gen. Reckord, who commanded the 115th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Division during the Meuse-Argonne offensive, and a state legislator named Millard Tydings, a machine gun officer who in the decades between the two world wars would become a leading foreign policy figure in the U.S. Senate. Ten Harford County women served as nurses attached to the allied forces.

The 1,100 figure is the most widely quoted, and appears to come from "Our Harford Heritage," by C. Milton Wright, although Jones' research found conflicting information about how many from Harford served.

"The precise number involved, however, rests in confusion," he wrote. "Maryland's official record of its participation in World War I indicates that Harford County provided 911 men and women to the nation's war effort. This figure, however, includes only those who are deemed to have 'enlisted' and omits reference to draftees and individuals who served in the military prior to the war."

Most of the Harford men who served in The World War were infantrymen. Between 80 and 100 (accounts vary) were attached to Company D based at the Bel Air Armory, which was mobilized into federal service with the 115th Infantry on Aug. 5, 1917. There were also draftees and enlistees attached to other units, according the historical survey of the armory.

On to France

The 29th Division first went to Camp McClellan in Alabama for training and then was shipped to France, first patrolling along the Swiss-German border before being sent north in late September 1918 to the fighting at Meuse-Argonne, where the allies made a final push toward Germany.

According to the historical survey of the armory, "the men of the [29th] division 'went over the top' for the first time on Oct. 8. In 21 consecutive days in the front line trenches they advanced six miles at a cost of 4,781 casualties, including 1,053 killed or died of wounds."

"Dear Mother," wrote one soldier, identified only as Leslie, whose letter is part of the Old Line Museum's archives and is reprinted in Jones book, "Received seven letters from you yesterday. I received 14 in all, so you see our mail service is poor. Most of the boys are in Dugouts. There are lots of rats as big here as big as Ponies. They run over the boys in the Dugouts. Some are often fighting away rats other than sleeping."

"We have to stay in the woods," continues the letter, written from France on Sept. 21, 1918. "We have to stay in the woods so the aeroplane cannot see us. We could hear the shells flying through the air last night. We passed through a town that was shelled by the Germans. Nothing left except a few walls."

Jones wrote brief biographies of Harford residents of note who served in the war, among them George Harold Cronin, a combat pilot from Aberdeen, who was the county's last surviving veteran of the war when he died in a hospice in Virginia of cancer on Jan. 30, 1988. He was 100 years old and had also served in World War II and the Korean War.

Mrs. Dombrowski's research in 1999 found that 10 Harford soldiers won the Distinguished Service Cross and many others received decorations from allied armies, including 13 who received the French Croix de Guerre.

The armory historical survey also notes that the 45 men from Harford County who died in The World War "are remembered on a plaque placed in front of the armory after the war." It's no coincidence that a few doors south of the armory, the movie theater that opened a few years after the World War ended was originally named "The Argonne."

For the men from Harford County, the majority who died in World War I never returned home.

One was buried at sea, eight died in German prison camps and 26 were buried in "Flanders Fields," those war cemeteries throughout France, Belgium and elsewhere in Europe, "where poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row," as immortalized in the poem of the same name by John McCrae.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad