Keene memorializes those who served in WWI

It was 11:11 a.m., Nov. 11, 1918, when the First World War became history.

Ultimately free from clouds of chlorine gas, explosions of bullets and bombs, excruciating pain of mustard gas, amputations of trench foot infections and launching of grenades — World War I veterans were once greatly appreciated by Americans.

As surviving soldiers returned home during 1919, communities across the country responded in celebration of World War I ending. Parades were held, speeches were given and memorials were dedicated to those who risked their lives on French battlefields.

Such recognition extended to tangible affirmations in American cities and villages.

Contributed Photo / Rose Kundains

Contributed Photo / Rose Kundains

In fact, author Richard Rubin noted in his oral history of World War I veterans, that there are more World War I memorials than any other war before.

But a few years later, the United States encountered an economic recession: The Great Depression.

Citizens were refocused on economic survival and, within ten years, World War II pushed World War I to the back burner of history.

As Richard Rubin wrote in the prologue of his history, The Last of the Doughboys, “Those statues and monuments and plaques and memorials commissioned back in the 1920s, though — they were big and elaborate, well made and well placed. They are still there, still everywhere, still striking and arresting and as legible as the day they were cast or chiseled.”

It is ironic, then to consider the apparently few World War I remembrances in Keene.

An imposing statue of a Civil War soldier is located in Keene’s Central Square. Indeed, finding World War I monuments in Keene can be a challenge.

After the surviving soldiers returned to Keene post-war, a group of veterans opened American Legion Post 4.

It was named after James H. Bissell and Grant H. Gordon, two veterans from the 26th Infantry Division who were killed in the Battle of Aisne-Marne Campaign in Reims, France.

Today American Legion Gordon-Bissell Post 4 is located at 797 Court St.

Nearly 100 years later, members of the American Legion held a ceremony on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2014. Roughly 50 veterans, families and friends joined together in respect for both living and deceased veterans. Speeches were given, followed by a buffet style luncheon.

Located in the entryway of American Legion was a glass showcase that held several award certificates and trophies.

Lining the walls of the main room were plaques and photos of Keene veterans from past wars.

In the corner, hung pictures of 13 of Keene’s heroes who died in France, including Gordon and Bissell.

Keene’s World War I soldiers also share a slender sliver on an obelisk, located at the Keene Parks, Recreation and Cemeteries Department of 312 Washington St.

Andy Bohannon, Director of the Keene Parks, Recreation and Cemeteries Department, explained that a pond was replaced with a war memorial in late 1980s.

One side of the memorial, dedicated to the First World War, is inscribed, “In Flanders Fields the poppies grow. Between the crosses row on row.”

Another war memorial is found at Ashuelot Park and honors Fred Hickey and Leo Desilets.

These were two of Keene’s veterans killed in action in Chateau Theirry, France. The Hickey-Desilets Park is located about a half mile from Keene State College and along the Ashuelot River, where Island St. and Winchester St. intersect.

A plaque indicates that Keene’s Italian Club maintains the memorial.

This past fall at Veterans Day time, it had two small American flags flanking it.

It was easy to miss; half of it was obscured by the crumbling leaves of autumn.

As Richard Rubin wrote in his prologue of The Last of the Doughboys, “On the field of American memory, World War I occupies the slim No Man’s Land between the archaic and the modern.”

By Jordan Crowley

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