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100 years later: Honoring Buffalo's sacrifice in 'war to end all wars'

Quick quiz: Can you name the key nations in World War I, the underlying causes of the war and the years it was fought?

Didn’t think so.

World War I, supposedly “the war to end all wars,” remains the forgotten war to most Americans.

Front page, April 6, 1917: U.S. joins World War I

Buffalo did its share in World War I – originally dubbed the Great War and then the World War – as seen in the 968 Erie County soldiers, nurses and canteen workers who lost their lives in service. That’s more than double the number of local residents killed in the Vietnam War.

Its last surviving soldiers died a few years ago. Few people can understand why it was fought. There was no great underlying issue, like the Civil War. No noble cause, like toppling the Nazi regime. No still-lingering issues for Americans, like the Vietnam War.

A flier advertising war bonds on display in the new exhibit "For Home and Country" at the Buffalo History Museum. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

But the calendar has brought World War I back into the spotlight, at least briefly, as Thursday marks the 100th anniversary of the United States' entry into the war – on April 6, 1917.

The Buffalo History Museum is jumping on that anniversary, opening a 90-item exhibit that examines the war and Buffalo’s role in it. The exhibit, “For Home and Country,” will remain open for two years.

One of Buffalo’s cultural leaders died in the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania, a key event that pushed America into the war. And less than two decades after the Pan-American Exposition showed off Buffalo’s emerging commercial and industrial strength to the world, local businesses supplied tens of thousands of military components, trucks and planes for the war.

“We want to shine a light on the sacrifices that were made by that generation that often are overlooked,” said Anthony Greco, the museum’s director of exhibits and interpretive planning. “It’s really a forgotten war.”

Remembering the fallen

The war, raging from the summer of 1914 to what became the first Armistice (Veterans) Day on Nov. 11, 1918, gave us the “doughboys,” the phrase “the Yanks are coming” and unspeakable violence, with machine-gun fire and flamethrowers leaving victims with disfigured noses and chins and horrific burns.

Why were American soldiers in World War I called doughboys?

The exhibit, most of it on the museum’s lower level, includes a local World War I memorial wall, photographs, posters, window banners, weapons, helmets, military and auxiliary uniforms, Liberty Bond posters and other artifacts. There’s also a museum interpretation of a machine-gun nest, complete with soil, a helmet and boots, a hand grenade and other weapons. And a few personal stories, including the heroic rescue of a Buffalo soldier by his brother.

“I’d like people to come out of the building feeling an emotional connection to World War I, based on the artifacts we displayed and the stories that were told,” said Walter Mayer, director of museum collections.

A tribute to the "Fallen Heroes of Erie County" in the new exhibit "For Home and Country," an exhibit at the Buffalo History Museum that marks the 100th anniversary of American involvement in World War I. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The exhibit’s signature piece is its 7½-by-8-foot wall, “Fallen Heroes of Erie County,” listing the 968 county residents who died, including four women.

“It’s one thing to say that 968 people were killed during the war, but it’s quite another to stand before a wall with their names, to read them and to see all the different ethnicities,” Greco said.

The wall is considered an exhaustive list of the local war dead, based on the 1919 book, “History of Buffalo and Erie County, 1914-1919.” As the exhibit was being assembled, some museum visitors have stopped by for a sneak peek at the impressive wall, similar to Vietnam War memorial walls.

“Everyone who has come in looking for a name has found it,” Greco said.

Front page, April 2, 1917: President Wilson declares war on Germany

Shaping history

That 754-page book lists the names of Erie County residents who enlisted in the U.S. Army, Navy and Marines and the Polish Army during World War I. A quick estimate of those lists suggests about 17,000 names, out of about 600,000 county residents at the time.

The book cites “the glorious epic of Buffalo and Erie County boys on the battlefields of France and Belgium, suffering wounds inflicted by gas and shrapnel and machine-gun bullets; fighting and dying, but ever with their faces forward.”

Like most good museum exhibits, “For Home and Country” also tells brief stories about some local people who left their mark on the war effort, including the following:

Sgt. Robert H. Roberts, who was gassed and assumed dead during a battle in northern France in September 1918. Back home, local newspapers reported his death.

“His brother Gerald was in the same unit,” Mayer said. “He went out looking for him, searched through the piles of bodies and found him. He wasn’t dead.”

Sgt. Roberts spent six months each in French and New York City hospitals, before returning to Buffalo, where he worked for the Buffalo schools. He died in 1981 at age 86.

The exhibit includes his uniform coat and cap, Purple Heart and Army dog tags.

Charlotte L. Kreinheder, a 39-year-old social studies teacher at the old Hutchinson High School, who went overseas as a YMCA volunteer, one of the “Y girls” who worked in canteens that provided some R&R for beleaguered soldiers.

“Basically, they provided a relief from the hellishness of war, a safe place to escape, with some of the comforts of home and certainly a sympathetic ear,” Mayer said.

Not all volunteers made the cut. The YMCA set up a Buffalo office to find recruits for overseas canteen work, according to the Buffalo history book.

“An interviewing committee met twice a week to pass upon candidates secured by the Recruiting Committee,” the book states. “The decision of this committee was final.”

The exhibit includes Kreinheder’s canteen uniform.

Alice Lord O’Brian, sister of John Lord O’Brian, whose name graces the University at Buffalo Law School building, left her job as a Black Rock social worker to serve with the Red Cross in France, as director of a canteen there.

A couple of decades later, Alice O’Brian, a strong critic of war, published the World War I letters she sent her family in Buffalo, according to the document “History of Women in Forest Lawn Cemetery.” In her book’s foreword, O’Brian summed up her anti-war feelings:

“... a new generation has grown up, apparently inclined to experiment with the same futility into which we all plunged a score of years ago, and it seemed to me that perhaps a few might find a deterring influence in the simple account of daily happenings in a background of grave events and profound tragedy.”

Elbert G. Hubbard, founder of the Roycroft artisan community in East Aurora, died aboard the Lusitania, after it was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915. Historians have called that a key event in the U.S. declaring war on Germany almost two years later, following an initial reluctance to enter the war.

“It was a tragic event which brought more public attention to the war, and it began to swing the support toward declaring war on Germany,” Greco said.

And Hubbard died a noble death. As the Lusitania was sinking, he and his wife, Alice, entered a room on the top deck and closed the door behind them, apparently so they could die together and not risk being separated in the water, according to a letter that a survivor wrote Hubbard’s son.

Front page May 11, 1915: 'Elbert Hubbard stood on the deck as Lusitania sank'

With no grandparents or great-grandparents around to tell their descendants about World War I, museum officials sound determined to educate the local public about this war and its importance.

This did not become the war to end all wars. But it did shape American history.

“We had a major shift in our foreign policy in World War I, from the Monroe Doctrine to intervening in foreign battles,” Greco said. “It’s the early stages of the United States’ emergence as a world power.”

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