We are nearing the centennial of the end of World War I, and I’ve begun to think about what my ancestors experienced in the conflicts of their times and how they viewed the conflicts. I remember a photo of my paternal grandfather, Rex O. Church (1883–1956), in military uniform, a puzzling photo because I didn’t know he ever served, but I did know he never left Maine for active duty. How did he serve (or not), and what did he miss (or not)?
An annual report dated 1917 by the Maine Adjutant General lists Rex O. Church having earned the rank of Private on 3 June 1916 in Capt. Fred B. Perley’s Company M, Second Maine Infantry, Maine National Guard. Some units of the Maine National Guard were mobilized under Gen. John J. Pershing and sent after Pancho Villa in 1914, but Rex’s unit was part of a state defense unit which would not be federalized until September 1917, when it was equipped and organized but held in service of the State of Maine. This 35-year-old farmer and father of three children, all under ten years old, signed his World War I federal draft registration card on 12 September 1918, only two months before the Armistice of 11 November 1918. As far as I know, my grandfather never left Maine as a soldier.
One of my distant first cousins, however, saw more than his share of the Great War. Charles T. Crossman (1874–1941), an expert rifleman, enlisted in the Massachusetts National Guard in 1896, saw action in the Spanish American War, and by 1918 was a captain in the 26th Infantry Division, 101st U.S. Infantry at Chemin des Dames, Toul Sector, Chateau Thierry, St. Mihiel, Verdun, the Aisne Marne offensive, and the Meuse-Argonne offensive.
Hello, newspapers! From one of my many bins of family papers there appeared several brittle copies of the Mid-Week Pictorial, an Illustrated Weekly Published by the New York Times Company. The 5 September 1918 issue provided photos of the Chateau-Thierry aftermath.
Charles returned home, honorably discharged on 28 April 1919, and was given a citation by General Pershing on recommendation of the men of his company for “Exceptionally Meritorious and Conspicuous Services.”
The three issues of the 1918 Mid-Week Pictorial provide photos of maps of the Western Front, embarkation ports and ships departing for France with American soldiers, photos of civilians in the war zones, and two-page spreads of “Our Nation’s Roll of Honor” with photos (including names and hometowns) of soldiers who did not survive.
These illustrated newspapers clearly report in black and white (what is sepia now) the involvement of leaders, soldiers, and civilians, the death and destruction of war, the “weapons of mass destruction” of the times, as well as the hope that World War I – the Great War – was the War To End All Wars. My cousin saw it first-hand in some of the worst battles of the war. My grandfather saw it all through these and other newspapers while he farmed to help the war effort and the local economy. Charles left the military and established his own insurance agency. Rex never again entered military life but remained a farmer and business man on the family homestead for the rest of his life. Whether it was over here, or over there, neither man was left untouched by the Great War.