Note: The weekly Illinois Bicentennial series is sponsored by the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors and Illinois Press Association. More than 20 newspapers are creating stories about the state’s history, places and key moments in advance of the Bicentennial on Dec. 3, 2018. Stories published up to this date can be found at 200Illinois.com.
Artie Bennett, a Marine from Clinton, was cut down by a hail of bullets 100 years ago in a far-flung foreign field, as he gave his life for his country in America's first global war.
A letter home from a fellow soldier mentioned Bennett, 18, had been attacking a machine gun nest as the Marines fought, successfully, to stem a German advance threatening the French capital of Paris in June 1918, the last summer of World War I. The fallen Marine had lingered for an hour before dying, one of the first casualties from Illinois. The letter honoring him, typed by fellow Marine Pvt. John W. Olsen, read: “He passed away quietly, without a complaint, and was laid to rest near where he fell.”
Immaculately tended American cemeteries in France and faded memorials at home are among the few tangible reminders of the “Great War” that began on July 28, 1914, and ended after 18 million soldiers and civilians had died on all sides with an armistice that went into effect at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918.
Now, nearing the 100th anniversary of the war’s end, the push is on to recall and honor the men and women of Illinois and all across America, who suffered and sacrificed for their nation.
Congress has created a U.S. World War I Centennial Commission, which is overseeing commemorations and fundraising for a WWI memorial in Washington, D.C.
Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a proclamation announcing the Illinois National Guard and Chicago's Pritzker Military Museum & Library will lead the effort to ensure the Land of Lincoln remembers its role in the Great War.
A WWI Centennial Committee has been drafted to aid in that state mission and is chaired by Jeanne Hamacher, who has taught high school history classes. She noted the key lesson to learn is that Illinois went to extraordinary efforts to support a war that shaped the world we live in, right up through today.
“When I was teaching, I did a lesson where I could link basically every conflict the United States has had (since WWI) back to WWI in some shape or form,” Hamacher said.
She added Illinois had helped win the war and the war changed the world forever.
“Schools need to teach this, we need to remember,” she added.
The U.S. declared war on Germany and its Central Powers allies on April 6, 1917, and Illinois became part of the vast conflict that would mark America's emergence as a global superpower.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the U.S. sent 4,734,991 soldiers and sailors to Europe and suffered 116,516 deaths.
Records from the Illinois Office of the Adjutant General lists more than 351,000 Illinois men who served in the Army, Navy and Marines during WWI and some 5,000 of them perished. One of every 12 enlistees in the Army hailed from Illinois and each left a mark.
The American Legion in Clinton is Crang-Bennett Post No. 103, named for the fallen Marine and also Army Sgt. 1st Class Welby Crang, who lived about a block from Bennett and died in France in 1917 from pneumonia. Ron Devore, 86, is a member of the Post’s executive board and a former commander who has fought to keep the memory of the WWI soldiers alive. He noted the post was founded in 1919 not just to honor fallen veterans, but to help and lobby for those who returned home alive, if not always in one piece.
“Some of these guys had been gassed, their lungs were burned and they had missing limbs and disabilities. They were messed up for life and they were not getting anything from the government,” Devore said. “Veterans knew that, if there was a bunch of them banded together, they could have a voice in Washington, D.C.”
Devore's wife, Marjorie, whose father was a veteran of WWI, vividly recalls the returned soldiers' sense of pride despite all their trials and tribulations. She added that pride had been matched by the patriotic fervor of their communities at home.
“My dad always said everybody had supported the war effort,” she said.
Illinois created the State Council of Defense, the job of which was to persuade, corral and control civilian production, from engineering to seed corn, to fuel the war machine. When the council produced its wrap-up report in 1919, it was suffused with pride at the sheer wartime output from the people of Illinois.
It pointed out that the state's agricultural production for 1918 had been geared to meet the needs of the wartime “national food authorities” and had been the third-largest crop harvest in state history, worth close to $880 million (about $15 billion in today's dollars).
It also lauded the generosity of Illinois citizens, who raised $45 million during the war to support everything from the Red Cross to the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and the Salvation Army.
With troops rushing forward and humming factories full of nose-to-grindstone workers who had shunted aside labor grumbles for the greater patriotic good, the State Council of Defense believed it had glimpsed capitalism's promised land.
“All war undertakings succeeded by virtue of the spirit of cooperation,” it concluded in its final 1919 report. “Since this unity of thought and purpose can be achieved under stress of war, why can it not be approximated, at least, in time of peace?”