Albany and the Great War (that pretty much no one remembers)



World War I has largely been forgotten. Not just in Albany but throughout the world, unless we think of Henry Johnson, Albany’s most recent Medal of Honor recipient.

Yet it was the war that changed the world forever; it was our loss of innocence, but brought the country together for the first time since before the Civil War.

It began in 1914; America didn’t enter the War until April, 1917, but when it did, the U.S. Government did everything within its power to raise an army. But after 3 weeks, there were only 73,000 volunteers (many who volunteered were rejected; they were illiterate or had un-diagnosed physical or mental issues that made them unfit for military service). In May 1917, a draft was instituted. By the time the war was over, about 4 million American men had served in some capacity.

Great Uncle Will Anderson

About 6,500 men from Albany served (out of a population of about 105,000). Some were already in the Army like my great uncle Will, stationed at Balboa guarding the Panama Canal.

3Others were in the 10th NY National Guard, based at the Washington Ave. Armory (like my great uncle Arthur) and called to active duty. Some volunteered for the Army, Navy and Marines (there was no Army Air Corps until April 1918); others were drafted. America was unprepared for war and needed every able body. Great Uncle Fred couldn’t pass the physical for the Army. He joined the Merchant Marines by enlisting at Frank Smith’s Drugstore on Clinton Ave. (The U.S. Merchant Marines was desperate for men- it teamed up with the 6,800 drugstores that sold Rexall products across America to serve as recruitment centers – a genius idea.) Even Great Uncle Albert, somewhat of a rascal and already in the Army, was released early from his sentence of hard labor in the “The Castle” military prison on Governor’s Island to do something useful. (My Gram had 6 brothers, only 2 did not serve; was a Lt. in the Albany Fire Dept., the other was a telegrapher for the D&H Railroad – exempt occupations. Her family’s participation in World War I was quite similar to the rest of the City. If they would take you, you went.)

By May 1918 there were 1 million U.S troops in France. They were called the American Expeditionary Force (the A.E.F.). Their combat action started in late spring 1918 and it quickly became bloody and brutal. War had broken out all over Europe in August 1914; for almost 4 years the Germans and the Allies had been stuck in a holding pattern of trench warfare while half of the German Army was fighting the Russians. The new Bolshevik government in Russia surrendered in March 1918, and the Germans turned their full force back to France. The American quickly went on the offensive in the face of this threat in a succession of attacks.. at Belleau Wood, the Marne River, Amiens and the Argonne Forest.

In less than 5 months of fighting approximately 53,000 men were killed in action, 205,000 wounded (about 70,000 died from disease – 1918 was the height of the worldwide flu pandemic which affected young adults most severely). Men died from chemical warfare, in hand to hand combat and from facing modern weapons (grenades, automatic rifles, machine guns, mortars, tanks, flame throwers and German Big Bertha cannons), with inadequate training and equipment (there were no ant-aircraft guns at the start of the War). The life expectancy of American pilots in combat (flying with the French in the Lafayette Escadrille or the U.S. Army Air Corps) was about 1 month (parachutes were not used until after the War.. they were considered “bad form” and cowardly). Many who survived were blinded or left with horrible chemical burns or amputations and other disfigurement. It was the first time soldiers were diagnosed with “shell shock”- what we know today as PTSD. It was NOT a “good war”.

obit 1917
Courtesy NYS Archives

9After the “War to end all Wars” the American dead, including those from Albany, lay buried in graves in France. One of those was another Albany Medal of Honor recipient, Parker Dunn (after whom the Dunn Memorial Bridge is named). He died in October, 1918 during the last great “push”, the Argonne Offensive. He was buried in a battlefield grave near Grand Pre, half way between the French city of Reims and the Belgian border. But the dead boys in Europe were going to stay there for another 2 to 3 years. Some families were ok with leaving their sons, their husbands, their brothers where they had fallen. Others were not. It didn’t make any difference; for 2 years the French refused to allow the bodies to be shipped home and re-interred. They had lots of support from British government officials who feared the impact on the English people if the bodies were brought back (about 700,000 British soldiers had been killed) and some of America’s greatest leaders, including General John Pershing, leader of the AEF, and ex-president Theodore Roosevelt. Finally after relentless pressure from American families and the newly formed American Legion, the French government lifted its ban and about 70,000 American troops were returned, including the bodies of about 25 of the 40 Albany soldiers killed overseas.

One of the first soldiers returned to Albany in March 1921 was William J. Kelly, Private USMC, from Jefferson St. He was killed in France in the early morning of November 11, 1918, before the Armistice ending the War went into effect “on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month” of that day. Private Kelly is interred in St. Agnes Cemetery.

11The memorial to the World War I dead is perhaps the least known in Albany. Memorial Grove was established in 1921 on the corner of S. Lake and New Scotland Ave, and is still there. It is truly the Forgotten War.

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

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