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Historical Society Commemorates Norfolk’s Role in the Great War

Norfolk Natives “Over There”


By Michael Kelly

While the war was raging for three years on the European continent, the United States was determined to stay out of a conflagration between nations nursing centuries-old antipathies and animosities. But a groundswell of nationalistic support fomented by adventurous, upper-class American scions eager to test their mettle in battle, the sinking by German U-boats of American ships carrying arms to the allies and firsthand reports of German atrocities in Belgium and Poland finally forced President Woodrow Wilson’s hand.

On April 6, 1917, the United States, joining France, Britain and Russia, declared war on the Germany-led Central Powers, galvanizing a near delirium of nationwide patriotism that permeated all the way to wee Norfolk.

To observe the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War I, the Norfolk Historical Society has mounted a compelling exhibit on Norfolk’s enthusiastic support of “The War to End All Wars.”

To sell war bonds, promote enlistment and encourage food rationing, the government produced thousands of beautifully illustrated posters of which the Historical Society has an extensive collection. Several of these posters were carefully restored and are hung to riveting effect throughout the exhibit.

Entering the main hall of the museum’s quaint, 19th-century building on the village green, visitors immediately get a feel for what Norfolk was like 100 years ago and the extent to which Norfolk’s citizens were committed to the cause. Displays and instructive panels bring to life mobilization efforts to supply much-needed medical dressings and basic provisions. Of particular interest are bags given to children to fill with pennies to help outfit soldiers’ comfort packets. Vintage uniforms, gas masks, helmets and weapons used by Norfolk soldiers “over there” bear witness to the brutality of war.

Personal stories, diaries and letters of some of the 79 Norfolk natives, including one woman, Florence Fields, who served during the war are delineated in the back anteroom. Of the 11 million soldiers who died in World War I, eight were from Norfolk. Each is honored and respectfully contextualized in this excellent exhibit:

Paul Bouchet, 21, and his brother John were serving with the American Expeditionary Forces on the Western Front when their unit came under surprise attack. Paul, a cook, failed to don his mask during a gas attack and died five days later on July 20, 1918.

Joseph Roberts, 25, and his brother Lester were local plumbers caught in the same surprise attack as the Bouchets. Joseph also died from gas and was buried in Oise-Aisne. His mother, Adele, visited his grave in 1933 as part of the Gold Star Mother program.

Wilbur Lefeber, 22, a groom and footman for summer resident Dr. Edward Peaslee, was declared dead on August 24, 1918, in the aftermath of the Aisne-Marne Offensive.

Harry Mansfield, 22, worked as a clerk at Mapleside Farm and was killed on June 6, 1918. He was buried at Aisne-Marne at the foot of the hill where the Battle of Bellevue Wood was fought.

James Moore, 26, enlisted in the National Guard in July 1917. Fighting with fellow Norfolk soldiers as part of Company M, he was killed in action at Chateau-Thierry on July 20, 1918.

Walter Caul, 21, a chauffeur for Dr. Almon Pinney, was killed by shellfire on April 20, 1918, the day after he was made sergeant. His remains were repatriated to Norfolk, where he is buried at Center Cemetery.

Thomas Costello, 28, was the son of an Irish stonemason serving in the army’s depot brigades at Camp Devens, Mass., who died from the effects of the Spanish flu pandemic on September 25, 1918, having never made it to the front lines.

Jeremiah Leahy, 24, another son of an Irish stonemason, worked in livery at a Norfolk general store. Letters home to his sister Kate vividly narrate what life was like for doughboys in the trenches. Jeremiah was killed on June 20, 1918, and is buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery, Norfolk.

When Alfredo Taylor’s triangular, rubble-stone monument to the veterans of World War I was dedicated on Armistice Day 1921, eight evergreen trees were planted to honor the Norfolk soldiers who died in the Great War. Every holiday season, successor trees are illuminated with white lights in grateful remembrance of the brave Norfolk soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice.

The Norfolk Historical Society is open every weekend from 1 to 4 p.m. through October or by appointment. Call 860-542-5761 or visit norfolkhistoricalsociety.org.

 Photos by Bruce Frisch.

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