Coming Home from the Great War Transcript

Nov 29, 2018

Back to the Coming Home from the Great War episode.

Linda Radke: Well, it’s right in the popular song tradition. You could almost write it yourself, and I can imagine the song coming out, being shown in the window of his printing shop. And I also see, around the piano, people singing this to build up their strength and courage for the conflict.

Linda Radtke is a singer and researcher. Some of her repertoire comes from sheet music housed in the Vermont Historical Society. Like this song:

Paul Carnahan: I’ve got an interesting decorative cover on a piece of sheet music. It’s orange and blue and it has the title on it, Oh, You 26th Division. And there’s a column of troops marching toward me, led by a soldier on a white horse. And up in the left-hand corner is a man in uniform embracing a young woman, kissing a young woman, actually, as the troops are marching away….And below the illustration of the troops, it says, “Words and music are by Fritz Buchner.” And it’s published by the author, Fritz Buchner, at 46 Pearl Street, Burlington, Vermont.

We’re looking at these pages with Paul Carnahan Carnahan and Amanda Gustin Gustin, from the Historical Society.

Amanda Gustin: Fritz Buchner, our friend Fritz, kind of an interesting guy. He was actually born in Burlington, Vermont. His parents were German immigrants. And he and all of his siblings, and he had a whole pile of siblings, were all born in Burlington.

So it strikes me as really interesting that a first-generation German immigrant in Burlington, Vermont, would be going all-in like this on the American war effort.

Paul Carnahan: But on the other hand, he probably felt a need to prove his Americanism and that he supported the American cause and not the cause of his parents’ homeland.

The lyrics talk about soldiers going off to war to fight the Huns.

Linda Radke: Yeah, I felt so uncomfortable about singing this, because whenever we have a war, we find names for our enemy, and that was one of them, and the barbaric Hun, and this is the culture of Beethoven and Bach and Brahms. And at the time, musicologists and music critics were arguing about whether, indeed, we should even be preparing German music, whether we should just reject everything that came from Germany, because of the Kaiser.

In the song, Fritz isn’t just talking about Americans – he’s talking about New Englanders.

Amanda Gustin: So the 26th Division was one of the earliest divisions created after America entered World War I. And America took some time to enter World War I. We came in very late to the game, but the 26th Division was created in July 1917, and basically, what they did was they collected a number of New England-based National Guard regiments and put them together in this division. And pretty early on, it gained the nickname The Yankee Division.

Almost immediately, people were writing songs about the 26th Division or the Yankee Division as the Yankee Division, the 26th Division, so Fritz is by no means alone in this. There are a lot of songs written out of Boston, also celebrating these “boys from New England States,” which is Fritz’s line in this song.

There were a lot of Vermonters in the 26th Division, and that was the most likely place for a Vermonter to end up who fought in World War I.

In the Civil War, soldiers had been grouped together based on where they were from. So there were entire regiments filled with Vermonters. That changed in World War I.

Paul Carnahan: The federal government got rid of that for World War I because of the obvious consequences and the effects on towns when there were some of these horrific battles.

This meant that Vermonters who went off to fight in Europe went off at different times from their neighbors, and came home at different times, if they came home at all. The Vermonters who fought all had unique experiences overseas. And that was even more obvious when they brought those experiences back to their home state.

This is Before Your Time, presented by the Vermont Historical Society, the Vermont Humanities Council, and VTDigger. I’m your host, Lovejoy. Every episode we go inside the stacks at the Vermont Historical Society to look at an object from their permanent collection that tells us something unique about our state. Then we take a closer look at the people, the events, or the ideas that surround each artifact.

The Yankee Division that Linda Radke was singing about arrived in France in September of 1917. By the following summer, two million Americans were fighting there.

Brennan Gauthier: The storyline of these young Americans going overseas to help fight a war that really isn’t … Hasn’t impacted them on the American front, kinda caught me. These boys are 17, 18-years old. You look at photographs of them and you can hardly believe that they know how to tie their shoes, let alone ship overseas and fight an enemy they may have never met before.

Brennan Gauthier is an archaeologist with the Vermont Agency of Transportation. He also collects portraits of World War I soldiers.

Brennan Gauthier: It just gives you a sense of … It’s almost like you’re touching history. It’s a tactile thing.

Brennan is showing us a photo of John Aubrey Gordon, who was born in Barre in 1888. Gordon was a Dartmouth student when he signed up with the American Field Service.

Brennan Gauthier: The American Field Service was kind of a precursor to the American Red Cross. He was only 1 of 21 Vermonters to actually volunteer for the American Field Service during the war. Which is actually a very low number. Many other states had hundreds and even thousands of people that signed up. And It was comprised of volunteers, as I mentioned, who were all self-funded. So you had to pay for your own uniform, you had to pay for your own overseas travel. And once you were overseas, you were charged with driving an ambulance and those ambulances were donated by cities and towns across the United States or even Fraternal Organizations.

Driving an ambulance at the front lines was a harrowing experience.

Brennan Gauthier: Today we think of ambulances as really sturdy and able to traverse long distances. But these ambulances were kind of rickety. The cots would be loaded into the back, kind of on shelves. If you were wounded, you would be … Almost like a bunk system. There’d be 3 or 4 men above you, possibly bleeding or screaming and things like that. It was not a great experience for those men.

Gordon’s most intense experience under fire took place soon after he arrived.

Brennan Gauthier: John arrived overseas in early 1918. His first and most famous kind of encounter where he won a number of medals was in Italy. A lot of people don’t think of Italy as being one of the fronts during World War I, but it was. So he served with the American Field Service with an Italian unit and he was charged with bringing wounded back from the front lines at this one famous battle: the Battle of the Piave River, which was the last kind of Austrian offensive of the Italian front.

He was awarded the Italian War Cross for meritorious service by the Italian government, and a newspaper in Barre ran an article about his heroism.

Brennan Gauthier [reading]: It appears that around 3 o’clock, the morning of June 15, a reinforcement of ambulances were needed and four volunteers were called for. One of them was John. The advancement under a violent bombardment of many shells and tear gas bombs, they continued to carry wounded to the rear throughout the day and into the night during the entire offensive.

Gordon returned home in early 1919.

Brennan Gauthier: He came home. Finished at Dartmouth. He graduated class of 1921, and studied law at the University of Chicago. As well the Chicago Kent College of Law, he was in class of 1923. That’s where he got his law degree and then he moved back to Barre to practice here in town.

Gordon became well-known as a passionate socialist, and a lawyer who often took on pro bono cases if he felt the defendants had been treated unfairly. He was a huge supporter of unions, and defended Italian marble workers who went on strike. He eventually became mayor of Barre, and some of his biggest accomplishments were in infrastructure. He built the Barre Municipal Auditorium, which still hosts conventions and basketball tournaments today.

Brennan Gauthier: He also added baseball fields and tennis courts that were publicly available to anyone in town. And he helped create the Barre Montpelier Airport, which is in Berlin.

He also extended water lines throughout Barry to allow people to access the public water supply and he increased the police force and added a new 600-gallon fire engine to the town. So he was very influential.

Not all of those who went overseas during World War I were young men. Amanda Gustin, from the Historical Society, told us about one woman’s work during the war.

Amanda Gustin: Anne Squire was born in 1887 in Weathersfield, Vermont. Her father was a farmer and she was the oldest of three kids. Her father died when she was 11, and we don’t know much else about her childhood but it can’t have been easy. But somehow even in spite of that, she ends up going to art school.

Anne went to art school in Massachusetts. When she returned to Vermont, she took a job as the art director for the Springfield school system. She worked there until 1918, when she took a new job with the Medical Department of the US Army as a Reconstruction Aide.

Amanda Gustin: What she actually signed up as was called a reconstructive or reconstruction aide, which is kind of an odd thing for the modern ear. But this was essentially a group of women, and it was women, who were working as physical therapists or occupational therapists.

This was the first time that the United States Army tried to integrate physical therapy into its medical corps. Now we think of, if you get injured, of course you’re going to end up in physical therapy afterwards to help you cope with the injury, to help you work through an injury, or just to help you learn how to adjust to life perhaps missing a limb or with limited mobility. It was a totally new idea at the time.

Something to think about when you think about World War I is that people often call it the first modern war. It was an almost unbelievably destructive war, not just to the landscape but also to human life. But at the same time, we’d made some pretty big jumps in medical science. So at the same time people were getting injured at a far greater rate, we were also saving lives at a far greater rate. And what that means is that your casualty rate is still incredibly high, but you get a lot of these soldiers with injuries they would not have survived, say, in the Civil War.

So what you end up with is a lot of soldiers who have pretty severe injuries but are going to be okay.

Anne’s background was in art — not medicine. But it was common for untrained women to take on these jobs.

Amanda Gustin: So even if she had a basic medical background, she would have been trained on the job. Most women were trained on the job, and they would have been trained in pretty basic things. We’re not talking about the years of physical therapy study that it takes to become a physical therapist now. They did a lot of massage; that’s something you can train someone to do at a basic level, and that can make a big difference in someone’s recovery. They did a lot of range of mobility exercises. They did a lot of hands-on work, and it just required a lot of people. The volume of people we’re dealing with is just so high, of soldiers that they had to help was just so high, that even having additional hands and additional people to work one-on-one with soldiers was huge.

Many reconstructive aids were recruited toward the end of the war, and Anne’s transport ship actually departed the United States on November 12, 1918 – the day after the armistice was signed.

Amanda Gustin: And she actually doesn’t spend too long over there, which was partially by design. This is not five year stint. The hope is really to transition these soldiers over, to get a large number of people to help the U.S. soldiers come back home, so she ends up coming home the following August, August 1919.

After she came home, Anne returned to her career as an artist. She moved to the midwest, then came back to Vermont years later.

Amanda Gustin: She ends up coming back east in 1934 and works in the Burlington school system as an art teacher, and she actually ends up teaching night classes under the Works Progress Administration in jewelry making and metalworking. So she’s teaching art to school kids during the day, and then she’s teaching art to adults during the evening as part of that incredible flourishing of federal works projects.

In 1936, Anne became a professor of arts and crafts at Goddard College in Plainfield, a job she held for the rest of her life.

Amanda Gustin: Her art is really local and it’s almost small, by which I don’t mean it’s small-minded. I mean it’s really focused on place, and it’s really focused on local place.

She returned to the theme Spruce Mountain over and over again in her art, which is a mountain in Plainfield. it was the view that she could see out of her own window of Spruce Mountain, and she just never got tired of that.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

You may have heard this poem before: “In Flanders Fields,” by the Canadian poet John McCrae. This poem about World War I made McCrae famous. But in Vermont, he was already well-known.

Kate Bright: I define him as three aspects of his life: he was a soldier, he was a physician, and he was also a poet.

McCrae played a key role in the early years of the University of Vermont’s medical school. We talked to Kate Bright and Sarah Dopp, from the UVM Medical Library, about his time in Burlington.

Kate Bright: He was a visiting professor, so he would basically come down every other Wednesday. He would take the train down and he would work on his lectures on the way down and write letters and prepare for the day of teaching.

When McCrae started teaching there in 1904, the medical school at UVM was small, with maybe a hundred students. On top of that, its main building burned down in 1903, so for the first few years that McCrae taught, he had to use classrooms all over Burlington.

Kate Bright: McCrae was very accommodating. He was an integral part of making things work, it seemed like, in the spaces that they had. He just came in and did the work that he needed to do and help them get their feet under them in a changing time.

By all accounts, McCrae was talented. And the community recognized it.

Kate Bright: In 1904, he gave the opening address for the medical school. It was titled, The Privileges of Medicine. It talked about medicine being a sacred calling in that it is a physician’s duty to serve those who are in need. That was the crux of where he was coming from with his medicine. That’s something that he really believed in, that we’re serving our community: We’re not here for our own benefit. We’re here to serve those who need us, basically.

At this same time, McCrae was writing a book.

Kate Bright: It’s called, The Text-Book of Pathology For Students of Medicine. That’s published in 1912, and would be used at the medical school at UVM until the 1920s as one of their textbooks.

Just before the book was published, McCrae ended his teaching career at UVM. His last year teaching was 1911. The war began just a few years later.

Kate Bright: He was on a ship on his way to Europe on holiday when World War I broke out. When he hears this, he has this sense of duty to his country and to all people that he needs to be a part of. He needs to go back to being a soldier.

Eventually, he became a surgeon with an artillery brigade. He served right on the front lines, and in between the horrors of war, he continued a practice that he had pursued his whole life.

Kate Bright: They talk about how he used poetry as a way of just using up those spare moments that he would have between things. He felt like he needed to be doing something, and that’s what poetry did for him.

The theme in a lot of his poems is death and loss. I think people latch on to that as something that speaks about him himself.

Today, John McCrae is remembered more than anything for that one particular poem he wrote in May 1915, soon after the Battle of Ypres:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

In the poem, McCrae uses the image of the poppy to remind people of the sacrifices that soldiers make.

Sarah Dopp: It’s beautiful, but it’s blood red, and it reminds us of the horrors of war.

“In Flanders Fields” almost instantly became famous.

Kate Bright: I think that people at the time, they felt a kinship to him just through his work. They felt that, “In Flanders Fields,” it spoke to the duty that the soldiers still had to perform. It spoke to the people at home supporting those soldiers, even in loss, even in the horrors of war. This poem ends up being this symbolic lift of, ‘Here we have to continue. This is us continuing on even with everything that’s happened.’

McCrae didn’t live to see the end of the war. In January 1918, he contracted pneumonia and died after just five days.

Kate Bright: Through that time … he’s right in the trenches. He’s a physician, he’s healing wounds, he’s helping the wounded and doing the best he can. It’s something that changes him. He was an exuberant, joyous person before. It basically just eventually took a toll on his health. Being there was very unhealthy situation for him. Like I said, his health wasn’t good to begin with, but then he had the stress. He felt like he was always on always doing things, always needed to be on.

Today, we still use the image of the poppy, especially on Veteran’s Day, to remember soldiers who lose their lives in wartime. Veterans organizations, such as the American Legion, sell small paper poppies as fundraisers.

Sarah Dopp: He becomes quite an emblem of the waste of war, because here is somebody with so much potential, so much he’d already given in so many, different fields. It’s pointless to have the kind of conversation of what if he hadn’t been killed, but the fact remains, he was only 46. He could have had 40 more years of productive output and humanitarian service. That was cut off.

In the end, over 16,000 Vermonters served in the war. And like the Canadian poet John McCrae, more than 600 of them died overseas. Almost 800 more were wounded in action. But thousands of others — like John Aubrey Gordon from Barre, and Anne Squire from Weathersfield — served their country and came back, to live their lives in their homeland of Vermont.

Before Your Time is presented by the Vermont Historical Society, the Vermont Humanities Council, and VTDigger. This episode was produced by Amanda Gustin and Mike Dougherty.

Thanks to Linda Radke, Paul Carnahan, Brennan Gauthier, Kate Bright and Sarah Dopp.

Before Your Time comes out every month. Search for it and subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts. And if you like what you hear, tell a friend to check it out. You can find photos and artifacts related to this episode on our website: before your time dot org. Thanks for listening.