LACONIA — It was a historic twist of fate that America’s entry into World War I roused the hearts and minds, and patriotic fervor, of the people of Laconia.
On Feb. 25, 1917, the British ocean liner RMS Laconia was torpedoed and sunk eight miles off the coast of Ireland. Two Americans died. The sinking of the Laconia stirred public opinion in America against the Germans and further galvanized public support for the U.S. entering the war less than six weeks later.
“The sinking of the Laconia was the last straw,” said local historian Warren Huse.
On April 2, 1917, Congress declared war on Germany.
Soon afterward recruiting parties were being held in the city, and teenage boys who were too young to serve, and men who were too old, were joining the local Home Guard. Those who were in college joined the Student Army Training Corps. In mid-June the military draft began.
By the time the war ended 17 months after America’s entry into the conflict — 100 years ago this Sunday — 553 Laconia men were in uniform as part of the war effort — more than 5 percent of the city’s population at the time. Some were sent to fight on the Western Front. Others were behind the lines or never left the country.
Thirteen of those who went off the war died. Earl McGrath was killed in action, and John F. Holland died from his wounds, according to records kept by the Rev. Otto Duerr. Notably, 11 of Laconia’s war dead succumbed to disease, including Frank W. Wilkins, an Army Signal Corps motor messenger who died of pneumonia in France, who was the city’s first casualty of that war.
Among those from Laconia who served were longtime City Engineer Col. Charles French, Laconia Hospital Superintendent Anna C. Lockerbie, a nurse who volunteered for service in France, and Frank Lynch who was a bodyguard to Gen. John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces on the Western Front. Others included Carroll W. Stafford, who later served in World War II, Euclid Cantin, and Elmer Tilton.
The Laconia-based National Guard unit — 2nd Company of the Coast Artillery — was federalized and spent the war positioned at various spots along the Maine and New Hampshire coasts, as well as in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Laconia businesses also contributed to the war effort. Hosiery mills made socks for the military. The Laconia Car Co., which manufactured trolley and railroad cars, produced hundreds of thousands of shell casings for the Russian Army, and the Bartlett Co. turned out crutches for the wounded.
Evidence of patriotic fervor in the city was demonstrated by the continuous over-subscription by city residents to war bond and relief fund drives. And Harry L. Brown, wrote a flag-waving song titled “America Saved the Day,” the sheet music of which was produced by a Boston music publisher.
Thomas Hill had the distinction of being the Laconian who broke the news that the war was over. Hill, whose work included being a newspaper correspondent, received a call on Nov. 11 — a Monday — at 2:45 a.m. from the Manchester Union office, that The Associated Press had announced “the signing of the armistice and that the war would stop at 6 o’clock.”
At 6 o’clock all the city’s church bells started to ring in jubilation, the fire alarm sounded, factory whistles tooted, “and the chorus of rejoicing was swelled by the blowing of tin horns, the bang of cannon-crackers, jingling of cowbells and every other noise-producing device that happened to be handy,” the Laconia Democrat reported.
A quickly-arranged parade “surged up and down Main Street” all morning. During the afternoon, numerous decorated autos from surrounding towns paraded through city streets. The festivities concluded in the evening with bonfires, fireworks and the “firing of cannon.”
On the Western Front things were different.
William Stewart, the father of 83-year-old Laconia resident Henry Stewart, was part of an Army artillery unit positioned in France.
The elder Stewart kept a diary of the whole time he was in the war. On Nov. 11, 1918, Cpl. Stewart wrote:
“We were on deck we fired two rounds before daylight. … When daylight came we could see where we was and it was a graveyard. … We got up at 2 p.m. in the afternoon and told that the war was at the end and to get ready to get home. We couldn’t believe it. It will take some time to clear this place of dead, for the dead are everywhere. But we are all satisfied after last night was the hardest fighting that this front has seen during the war. Both sides have fireworks used as signals during the battle, and they are now being used for pleasure coming up the hill.”
Incredibly nearly 11,000 men were killed or wounded pointlessly as both sides counted down to the 11 a.m. signing of the armistice. The last American killed in the war died a minute before the signing, according to historical accounts.
William Stewart never lived in Laconia, but his son nevertheless is another local link to that devastating conflict war which claimed 16 million lives — 9.7 million of them military personnel, including almost 117,000 Americans — and left more than 20 million wounded; one of the deadliest conflicts in human history.
Warren D. Huse contributed to this report.
Michael Mortensen can be contacted at email@example.com.