Sixty-three thousand residents of Connecticut (approximately 5 percent of its total population) served in World War I, and yet this is an episode that has been largely forgotten in that state. Scott Wands, manager of grants and programs for Connecticut Humanities, which awarded a $10,000 planning grant to the state library, suggests that this war was obscured by the even more horrible conflict that broke out roughly 20 years later. But during this centenary year of the United States’ entry into World War I, a coalition of cultural organizations within Connecticut is working to rescue the doughboys’ service from obscurity.
Pittsley’s team, in collaboration with local libraries around the state, has played a crucial part in this effort. First, each library will sponsor a World War I-themed event to awaken interest and set local residents to rummaging in closets and attics for documents and artifacts. Then a week or two later, the team will arrive for a workshop in which people are invited to submit what they have found for scanning, digitization, and preservation in the state archive.
A recent such event at the Middletown library began with a reading from the diaries of a Middletown doctor, who left her home, husband, and son in April of 1918 to travel to France and serve in a Red Cross hospital in Beauvais. “I am that unique individual,” mourned the doctor without apparent irony, “who up to date has had no thrilling experiences, barring air raids and Big Bertha [a huge German siege gun].” The diary excerpts were delivered by the doctor’s great-granddaughter and accompanied by narration on the doctor’s life and time in France, historical images, and performances of songs of the period.
Two weeks later, the same library played host to a steady stream of people carrying vintage photographs of men and women in uniform, discharge papers, service medals, and military dog tags. Students and veterans with the project interviewed participants and helped them select the items to be preserved in the state’s digital archive (accessible at CTinWorldWar1.org). So far the project has held 21 digitization events, with 11 more scheduled this year, and has preserved more than 3,500 images.
The most colorful participant in the Middletown event was the woman who arrived with the telegram notifying the family that her grandfather was wounded—he lost a leg—along with the spiked pickelhaube helmet of the German soldier who fired the shot. Especially interesting to Pittsley was a photograph from another woman whose grandfather had serviced biplanes in France. It showed a pilot who, Pittsley said, seemed to have been pictured in a photograph, taken by another soldier, that surfaced in another digitization event in another town.
This is typical of the network of connections that are emerging from these events. Another began at the North Haven Memorial Library when the great-niece of a Private Robert Remington came forward with mementos of his service in the 102nd Infantry. Remington had died at the Battle of Seicheprey, the victim of a storm trooper’s bayonet. Later, at the library in Rocky Hill, the daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter of Corporal James Vibert contributed his photos and letters; Vibert also had served in the 102nd. Pittsley discovered in a regimental history that Vibert led Remington and other soldiers in an attempt to salvage a field telephone switchboard when they were overrun and Remington was killed. Vibert, after killing several of the enemy, had attempted to show mercy to a German soldier who was ultimately bayoneted when he refused to surrender. Remington and Vibert’s descendants learned about this story for the first time through the program. Meanwhile, Remington’s artifacts were shown in an exhibition at the New Haven Museum. The museum is planning a larger show combining a soldier’s diary and scrapbook from its own collection with a look at New Haven’s connection to current military conflicts.
Emerging from all of these details is a rich mosaic of this devastating chapter of the twentieth century. World War I did not prove to be, as the survivors hoped, the war to end all wars. But, in Connecticut at least, it will no longer be the forgotten fight.