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David Bergquist & Richard Shaw David Bergquist & Richard Shaw
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Thoughts on the World War I Centennial

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Thoughts on the World War I Centennial (Photo courtesy of Richard Shaw)

After days of rain, Wednesday, April 4, 1917, dawned bright, clear and brisk - a perfect day for a parade. And what a parade it was. Nearly 5,000 citizens from Brewer, Bangor and surrounding towns marched in a four-division parade that wended its way through Bangor’s downtown streets. Many thousands more lined the parade route and cheered as military, fraternal, municipal and civic contingents went by.

This massive event, dubbed by its organizers as “Patriotic Day,” sought to engage citizens in the major happening of the day, World War I, later euphemistically and erroneously labeled “The War to End All Wars.” Organizers hoped the parade would be a “... demonstration of faith in our country [and that] those who come to take part in this observance will lay their offerings on the altar of patriotism.”

Just two days prior, President Woodrow Wilson addressed Congress, pledged that the “... world must be made safe for democracy,” and asked for a declaration of war against the German Empire; two days after our Patriotic Day, Congress acceded to the president’s request and voted, although not unanimously, for war.

Nearly 4,000 citizens crammed the old municipal auditorium that once stood on the corner of Buck and Main streets to listen to a program of oratory. Former Maine U.S. Sen. Charles F. Johnson rallied the crowd with the words of “Our flag ... unfurled ... in the cause of freedom and equality.”

Patriotic music followed to include the singing of the Civil War classic, "Battle Hymn of the Republic," and organizers offered a resolution, later sent to Wilson, that summed up the sentiment of Maine people: “... When our own, peaceably traveling the free highways of the world, have been robbed and ravished and drowned and murdered; when our ships have been destroyed; our commerce restricted....” Maine, with its rich maritime history, including the cities of Brewer and Bangor, intimately identified with the rights of ships to sail freely and in direct opposition to Germany’s policy of “unrestricted submarine warfare."

The Brewer Historical Society, the Maine Infantry Foundation and Acadia Hospital formed the Bangor-Brewer First World War Centennial Committee to commemorate this tumultuous time in our national history and to learn from the sacrifices of the men and women of the Bangor-Brewer area during World War I in order to guide our future. Planned events over the next 18 months, to be announced in the media, include historic displays, lectures and involvement in local parades.

The focus of this effort will always be to derive lessons from this war and apply to them our contemporary times. The United States found itself woefully unprepared for fighting a “trench” war in Europe; its standing army and navy were pitifully undermanned. Yet, its citizenry and youth quickly responded and measurably brought the European fighting to a close.

The horrors of this war, however, impacted Americans to the point that isolationism became foreign policy in the immediate years after the Armistice. George Washington's admonition to stay out of foreign entanglements, imbued with new fuel from our experience “Over There,” still made sense, but

later proved to be out of step with the new world and with the advances of technology, particularly the aircraft. The “War to End all Wars” morphed into World War II, followed within a generation by Korea, then Vietnam, Iraq, and now the Mideast conflict, in its 15th year - America's longest-lasting war.

In each war, American youth have paid more than we can imagine. Soldiers from World War I returned home plagued by shell shock; today we call it post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. While treatment and services have improved over the past century, the experiences of war now profoundly affect many of our military veterans. And, while the United States today has a ready active military, reserve and National Guard equal to the challenge of today's turbulent and terror-filled world, we cannot forget our past experiences as a nation.

We must learn from them and apply those lessons to our future. Hence, the Bangor-Brewer First World War Centennial Committee's motto, “Preserving our Past to Guide our Future."

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