Memorial Day: Remembering the Veterans of 1918
Here are the remarks I delivered yesterday at the Greater Lowell Veteran’s Council Memorial Day Ceremony at Lowell Memorial Auditorium. I serve as the Council’s historian.
One hundred years ago today, the Allied armies in France faced a crisis. The new Soviet government in Russia had signed a peace treaty with Germany, and a half-million battle-tested German soldiers had been shifted from the Eastern Front to the Western Front where they faced the worn-down armies of Britain and France. Seeking to quickly end the war with this infusion of new troops, the Germans launched a major offensive, broke through the lines and were heading to Paris with no one to stop them.
The French commander made a frantic call to General John Pershing, the commander of the newly formed American Expeditionary Force. Up until that point, Pershing had resisted efforts to put American units into combat. He felt it would be unfair to his troops to put them into battle until they were adequately trained and equipped.
You see, at the start of World War I when the German Army had 5 million troops and the French Army had 4 million, the United States Army consisted of just 125,000 regulars and 250,000 National Guardsman. It would take time to raise, train and equip an American Army of sufficient size and power to have an impact on the Western Front and Pershing did not want to commit his forces prematurely.
But at the end of May 1918, the situation was desperate so Pershing ordered three American divisions into the path of the advancing Germans. These were the Regular Army’s 3rd Division, the 2nd Division which was half Regular Army troops and half Marines, and the 26th Division which was known as the Yankee Division because it was composed entirely of National Guard units from New England, including hundreds of men from Lowell.
These untested American units not only stopped the Germans but they counterattacked and drove them back in a series of battles at Belleau Wood, Chateau Theirry and other places whose names are inscribed on the façade of this Memorial Auditorium.
These American victories had an impact that reached far beyond those battlefields to the east of Paris. Up until then, the Germans believed that the American Army with its new recruits and inexperienced officers would collapse when confronted with experienced German troops. Well the Germans were wrong. These early battles proved beyond all doubt that the American Army would fight bravely and relentlessly. This realization caused the morale of the German Army to collapse and made the Allied victory inevitable.
But this strategic victory came at a high cost. For the short period of time that the Americans were in combat in World War I, the casualties they suffered were enormous including 200 men from Lowell. In the decade after the war, the people of Lowell built this Memorial Auditorium in honor of those who served. They also dedicated 45 squares, playgrounds and parks around the city to some of those who died.
Today, places like Kearney Square, McPherson Playground, Cupples Square and Kittredge Park are familiar to all of us. But the stories of Paul Kearney, Frank McPherson, Lorne Cupples and Paul Kittredge risk fading away. That is why it is so important for us to continue gathering at ceremonies like this to keep those stories alive.