WWI centennial: Portland still mindful of ‘The War to End All Wars’

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PORTLAND — Nearly 100 years after he died, Harold T. Andrews’ name lives on throughout the city.

The landmarks, plaques and portraits that bear his name are in focus again with the centennial of America’s official entry into World War I on April 6.

Andrews, born on the West End, attended Portland High School and Bowdoin College. He was the first Mainer to die in combat in “The War to End All Wars.”

“How would a kid from Bowdoin College end up in a field with a shovel in his hand?” Joe Rich, a member of American Legion Harold T. Andrews Post No. 17, said March 30.

Assigned to help build a railroad with the 11th New York Engineers near Cambrai, France, on Nov. 30, 1917, Andrews grabbed a gun when the unit was attacked. He ran out of ammunition and killed German soldiers with a shovel before he died.

Andrews’ photo and story greet visitors in the bar at the Post at 23 Deering St. Upstairs, in the John Calvin Stevens-designed building, more photos and scrapbooks tell of his life and death.

How Andrews reached the field in Cambrai is also explained in a wider sense at the Maine Historical Society, where Director of Library Services Jamie Rice has curated an exhibit called “World War I and the Maine Experience.”

The exhibit is open through June 14 at 489 Congress St., and portions of it can also be viewed online at mainememory.net.

“That period of history, it had such a large impact on the world today,” Rice said March 24.

Combat between the Allies, principally Great Britain, France, Russia and Italy. and the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey, began in August 1914. The war raged through Europe and the Middle East, and was fought globally.

At first, America remained officially neutral. Opinions did not. Rice noted Maine did not have a large German-American population, but Irish-Americans who opposed English dominion and Jewish residents with connections to Germany could be more supportive of the Central Powers.

From 1914-1917, Mainers joined the Allies to serve in medical units or as flyers. Albion H. Little, a Portland doctor, served as an ophthalmology specialist in the Yale Unit Mobile Hospital established in 1916.

In 1916, American soldiers were already skirmishing with Mexicans, as a revolution there spilled over the borders into Texas and New Mexico. National Guard troops from Maine joined those from New Hampshire and Missouri to serve as border guards on the Rio Grande River.

That year, President Woodrow Wilson was re-elected with a slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.” By his March 1917 inauguration, neutrality’s days were numbered.

On April 2, 1917, Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war. On April 6, he got it.

Local historian and former legislator Herb Adams noted that when America went to war, it had an army smaller than Portugal’s. Some mobilization had begun; preparedness committees were established in Maine as war became imminent.

By April 7, the local Navy militia had mustered at the former armory on Milk Street. On April 10 schools were closed for the parade as it marched past Monument Square to ship out to Boston.

Recruitment ads for the National Guard sought “red blooded men, ready to fight” between the ages of 18 and 30. Fort Williams in Cape Elizabeth and forts along Casco Bay were all manned; Fort Levett on Cushing Island was used for training.

The local war effort brought women to work at the Portland Co. at 58 Fore St. and in other industries. Mainers were urged to grow food, and a developer in Portland pledged more than 400 unbuilt house lots for use as gardens.

Elizabeth Aageson of Portland lent her father’s vintage 1850 telescope to the U.S. Navy. It was later returned with a $1 payment and a thank-you note from Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In South Portland, shipyards went to work. In World War I, this often meant wooden ships used to transport men and materials regionally, Rice said.

Combat brought ghastly weapons. Portland’s Harry Moore was burned by mustard gas, which he described in a letter included in the NHS exhibit.

“It is not very serious at all, but by golly it is certainly painful, and smarts something … awful,” he wrote to his cousins.

Eventually, more than 32,000 Mainers served, and more than 1,000, including 67 from Portland, died. Disease caused a greater toll than combat, including the Spanish influenza pandemic that raged globally in 1918-1919.

Andrews is also memorialized at the intersections of Pine, Clark and West streets, where Andrews Square sits in front of the former Butler School, where his father was principal. His name is first on a plaque commemorating city residents who died in World War I. Inside Portland High School is another plaque, and Andrews’ photo is one of seven considered “The Immortals of Portland High School.”

America helped win the war and Wilson tried to shape the peace that followed. After the war, the American Legion formed; the Andrews Post counted Gov. Percival Baxter and film director John Ford among its early members. Ford’s friend, John Wayne, was an honorary member.

Even as America retreated to isolationism in the decades that followed, Rice said the war reshaped the nation.

“It really is what defines the United States as a global power,” she said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Paul Avery, commander of American Legion Harold T. Andrews Post No. 17 in Portland, watches TV April 1 at the post named for the first Mainer to die in World War I. Andrews’ photo and details about his death hand on the wall across from the bar.

Harold T. Andrews in a photo outside his family’s Portland home. The photo is displayed at American Legion Post No. 17, named in his honor.

Jamie Rice of the Maine Historical Society curated an exhibit on World War I that includes artifacts and uniforms. “It really is what defines the United States as a power,” she said last month.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.