Editorial: A Changed World, and a Neglected Monument

  • The World War I memorial in Hartford, Vt., in an undated photograph. (Courtesy of the Hartford Historical Society)

  • The World War I memorial in Hartford, Vt., in an undated photograph. (Courtesy of the Hartford Historical Society)

Saturday, November 10, 2018

The world changed 100 years ago today. At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the armistice ending hostilities in the First World War was signed. After more than four years of unimaginable devastation, the guns in Europe finally fell silent and all was quiet on the muddy, bloody wasteland known as the Western Front.

Some 20 million people — combatants and civilians — died in what was also called the Great War, or “the war to end all wars.” Millions more died in related civil conflicts. The 1918 influenza epidemic, which took advantage of troop movements, crowded hospitals and bad post-war hygiene, killed up to 100 million more. America, which entered the war only in 1917, suffered relatively modest losses — about 53,000 combat deaths and 63,000 deaths due to disease out of 4.7 million who served.

World War I did not end all wars. Many believe it simply set the stage for World War II just 21 years later. But it did reshape the political landscape of Europe and introduce new military technologies (tanks, aerial warfare, aircraft carriers) still in use today. It also marked America’s debut as a world power, while at the same time laying the groundwork for isolationism and the “America First” movement. As historian and writer A. Scott Berg told Humanities magazine, “modern America’s very identity was forged during this war.” It is worth noting here that, while the peace following World War I didn’t last, the one following World War II has endured for nearly 75 years through political, economic and military arrangements that depend on cooperation among countries — precisely the world order that is threatened now by the resurgence of nationalism in Europe and the United States.

In America, Nov. 11 is known as Veterans Day (it is Armistice Day or Remembrance Day in other countries) and events around the Upper Valley over the past week have marked the occasion in a variety of ways: Color guards at The Newton School in Strafford; “Walls of Honor” at Canaan Elementary School; a display of bright red poppies — a practice inspired by the World War I-era poem In Flanders Fields — at the Thompson Senior Center in Woodstock; presentations and performances by and about veterans at Vermont Law School and Chandler Music Hall.

Among the events scheduled for today— the 11th day of the 11th month — are a parade and ceremony at Colburn Park in Lebanon, service hymns played by the Baker Library bells at Dartmouth, and armistice ceremonies at Broad Street Park in Claremont. These are fitting ways to remember this day and to honor those who have served. But we will take the opportunity — because if not today, when? — to say there is one thing we would like to see change, and that’s the status of Hartford’s original World War I monument.

In 2015, staff writer Liz Sauchelli wrote about the Hartford Historical Society’s call for help in restoring the monument, described as a three-panel, two-sided wooden frame holding nearly 300 names cast on individual iron plates. The words “1914 Honor Roll 1918” arched across the top of both sides of the center panel and the display was topped with a pair of cast-iron eagles.

Hard information about the monument’s history is elusive. It stood outside the Municipal Building until it was destroyed in a flood or taken down for a construction project or knocked over in a storm. The names on the plates could be of Hartford citizens who died during the war, or who served in the war, or who served in the war and had died by the time the monument was erected. Some are missing — visiting relatives were occasionally given the plate with the name of their family member on it. The remaining pieces were stored in the basement of the Municipal Building before being moved to the basement of Garipay House, the historical society’s headquarters, where they remain today.

Hartford honors its veterans well, with a stately granite monument outside the Municipal Building and the little oasis of Veterans Memorial Park just over the bridge. Even so, to have the names of the town’s World War I veterans sitting in a dusty pile in a basement just seems wrong, and the dedicated volunteers of the Hartford Historical Society could use some help making it right. What’s needed are some interest, some energy and probably a few bucks.

There are historical mysteries to be solved: How did the monument end up in pieces? Who are the people whose names were on the monument? Which names are missing? There are technical challenges in replicating the missing cast-iron nameplates and the one remaining cast-iron eagle. There’s a community outreach project in finding a place to display the restored monument. Or perhaps there’s a way to display the monument as is, adding to it as more information becomes available, or as a missing nameplate is returned.

Hartford and the Upper Valley have no shortage of history buffs who could take on a project like this. It also would be a great project for a motivated group of students, or perhaps a couple of Eagle Scout candidates. The deadline: June 28, 2019, the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which brought World War I to an official end.

If not now, when?