Historical society exhibit reveals struggles, triumphs of Cromwell’s connection to WWI

CROMWELL — For months, the Cromwell Historical Society has been revisiting one of the most meaningful — though now largely forgotten — periods of American history: U.S. participation in WWI.

Known to the British as The Great War, the four-year struggle that played out primarily in portions of northeast France and western Belgium continues to affect the world today.

The United States engaged in WWI in April 1917.

In many ways, the war created much of that world, most dramatically in the Middle East, where whole countries were created out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.

The war also brought about the collapse of two other empires, the already rickety Hapsburg Empire and the nearly 200-year-old Russian empire, with similarly dramatic impacts.

The hard peace that followed the bitter war provided a pretext that the Austrian misfit Adolf Hitler used to raise up a new and even more hideous empire that continued for 12 years before being ground into the dust in a Second World War that cost 55 million lives.

Now, the historical society is trying to broaden the understanding of the war and its impact — not only nations or empires — but on ordinary men and women, some of who were swept up in an extraordinary event.

The society will hold a wine-and-cheese reception Monday night to mark the opening of its summer exhibit, “Cromwell & The Great War,” at the Stevens-Frisbie House, 395 Main St.

America came late and hesitantly to the World War I, yet emerged from it a preeminent power, largely because of the indebtedness of the British who bought food and weapons from America.

Even more importantly, U.S. casualties (117,000 killed), while painful, were nowhere near the 900,000 men of the United Kingdom or the 1.4 million Frenchmen who died in the war.

It was a power America was loath to accept: The real emergence of Untied States as a global world power came in 1945 and the years that followed.

Today, if they remember it at all, some Americans think of the war as men scurrying about in black-and-white films that are not corrected to the 24 frames per second of modern film.

According to a press release from society president and town historian Richard F. Donohue, when the U.S. entered the war, “Cromwell’s residents answered the call, with more than 100 men and women joining the service (with) even more supporting their efforts at home.”

“‘Cromwell & The Great War’ provides a glimpse into the work and sacrifice of these brave and patriotic Cromwellians,” Donohue added.

In a subsequent email, Donohue said, “The exhibit tells the story using several items from the periods, including photographs, news clippings and artifacts. It (uses) labels with direct quotes from a contemporary account of Cromwell’s wartime activities.

“The display includes a medal, similar to those presented to all of Cromwell’s world war veterans, representing the great respect that the people of Cromwell had for their returning heroes,” he said. “My favorite item on display is a book of signatures in which many of the former soldiers signed up for membership in the newly formed America Legion Post 105.

“Seeing their names in their own hand is very poignant,” Donohue said.

He hopes exhibit goers will feel a connection with not only the men and women who served, but with the Cromwell community that supported them a century ago, he added.

By coincidence, the exhibit is opening to the public just days after a significant anniversary, the Aug. 8 centennial of the Battle of Amiens. A truly Allied action, involving 100,000 British, French, Australian, Canadian and American troops in a coordinated air/land assault, Amiens broke the back of German resistance.

In a war where gains had been measured in mere feet amid daunting casualties, the Allied offensive gained eight miles and took thousands of Germans prisoner.

The German commander Ludendorff described Aug. 8, 1918, as “the black day of the German Army.”

He knew of what he spoke: the breakthrough at Amiens forecast the end of the war a mere 95 days later.

The reception begins at 7 p.m. Monday and is free and open to the public, however, the society welcomes donations, Donohue said. The exhibit will remain viewable by the public Saturdays in August and Sundays in September from 1 to 3 p.m.