World War I centennial exhibit at the Boothbay Harbor Memorial Library

Posted:  Friday, April 21, 2017 - 7:45am
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When World War I erupted in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson promised neutrality, which most Americans favored. Within three years the tide of public opinion had turned and the president asked Congress to approve sending U.S. troops to Europe. He gave two reasons for entering the conflict: the Germans had violated their pledge to refrain from attacking passenger ships and they had attempted to entice Mexico into an alliance against the U.S. The Legislative Branch supported the president and America declared war against Germany on April 6, 1917.

Wilson asked the country to sacrifice in order to defend democracy and posters appeared encouraging citizens to support the war effort. Millions of loyalty leaflets were also printed in 14 different languages. Meanwhile the president was making plans for a military draft and subsequent notices encouraged people to enlist. Thousands of men marched into city halls to register, including many from our community. Women also signed up to serve in the Army Corps of Nurses or the Red Cross. Posters were produced to entice people to buy Liberty Bonds to fund the war. Others motivated people to reduce their consumption of wheat, meat and sugar in the cause of freedom.

Boothbay Harbor Memorial Library is marking America’s participation in WWI with an exhibit of some of these posters. They belonged to the late Gertrude Mather and were kindly lent by Tom Tavenner. Thanks are also extended to Barbara Rumsey of Boothbay Harbor’s Historical Society and Fran Nicoletta of American Legion Post 36, for providing pamphlets, photographs and newspaper articles. These provide images and accounts of the Local Coast Patrol from 1917-18, Armistice Day and the 1919 Welcome Home Celebration for veterans from Boothbay, Boothbay Harbor, Southport and Monhegan. The exhibit will run through May in the Great Room of the library, where a WWI Honor Roll is displayed above the fireplace. Residents are invited to attend a reception on Wednesday, May 3 from 5-7 p.m.

General Pershing was given command of an ethnically diverse U.S. Army with 42 spoken languages. Worn down after three years of heavy fighting, the Allies welcomed the arrival of American Forces and Germany was surprised at the speed with which the U.S. trained and transported their troops. They were known as doughboys, because of their doughnut shaped buttons. Yet our country was divided and protests sprang up against the draft, as it ran counter to the notion of American individualism. A sense of unease and distrust swept through the States. Vigilante groups sprang up to ensure neighbors did their patriotic duty. A Sedition Act was passed and camps were set up to imprison anyone who threatened U.S. security. The right to free speech was the price paid to wage war in Europe. Anti-German hysteria was rampant, beer steins were publicly smashed and many Americans with German ancestry changed their surnames.

By the summer of 1918, there were more than a million American fighters in France and casualty lists in newspapers were staggering. A grim influenza pandemic also accounted for many deaths. The U.S. Army helped to stop the enemy from reaching Paris and Germany acknowledged that they had underestimated the Americans. The enemy calculated that fresh U.S. troops would keep on coming, while their own were depleted and this fact helped to forge a peace. An Armistice was declared at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

In Boothbay Harbor, the Navy’s Coast Patrol (stationed in the Carbone building) picked up the news from a wireless communication at 3 a.m. Word soon got out and spontaneous celebrations sprang up between 5 and 6 a.m. with the firing of the Yacht Club cannon, ringing of church bells and Navy boys blowing horns and beating drums. Townspeople joined in with a fanfare of cheers and banging on tin cans. A holiday was declared, bunting appeared and by 7 o’ clock, separate parades combined to form one large group with three bands. The town’s hearse led the way with a sign reading, “To hell with the Kaiser.” A funeral pyre was built on the ledge behind the bank building and an effigy of the infamous German leader was burned to the roar of crowds watching from vantage points on Oak Street and Townsend Avenue. Our boys would soon be coming home.