1917 – The Easton Doughboys of the First World War

Part of the Easton in the Service series presented by the Historical Society of Easton.

When we are in school, studying the history of war is an exercise in memorizing places, dates, countries, and battles. It is largely about who wins and who loses. We tend to glorify the victors and vilify the vanquished. We learn all about the politicians and the generals, but seldom do we learn much about one of the most important cogs in the machine that either succeeds or fails in securing victory – the men and women who are the warriors and those who offer the support necessary for them to do battle.

While most nations maintain some form of professional fighting forces to protect their borders and the population within them, during times of all-out conflict most military organizations require additional personnel. Whether it be by voluntary enlistment or conscription, when additional soldiers are required, it is the young men and women who are called to duty. During the early years of the twentieth century, the United States was no exception.

When hostilities broke out in Europe during the summer 1914, the standing army of the United States was comprised of less than one hundred thousand men. The regular army was backed up by an additional twenty-seven thousand troops attached to the National Guard, making the grand total of trained troops available for fighting only one hundred and twenty-five thousand strong. In December of that year, General Leonard Wood aided in the establishment of the National Security League and he was soon lobbying President Woodrow Wilson for conscription as a means of increasing the size of the U.S. Army. President Wilson’s tepid response added about forty thousand additional soldiers to the standing army, but he fell short of supporting a draft.

Wilson correctly believed that the people of the United States had no appetite for the war in Europe. He preferred the pursuit of a policy on non-intervention. His multiple attempts to broker a peace were futile. American industries were churning out weapons of war and selling them to the allied forces of Great Britain, France, and the Russian Empire. At its peak during the war, the Remington Rifle Works in Bridgeport was producing over four thousand rifles per day in a factory that occupied over one million square feet – reported to be the largest factory in the world at that time.

When a German U-boat sank the RMS Lusitania on May 7, 1915, one hundred and twenty-eight Americans were among the nearly twelve hundred passengers and crew who lost their lives. That event could have very well been the “Pearl Harbor” of the First World War, but instead, Wilson was able to convince the Germans to return to the earlier policy of allowing passengers to board lifeboats prior to attacking and sinking a vessel. The British had long been carrying weapons and ammunition bound for Europe aboard its passenger ships and the Germans had posted warnings for passengers scheduled to sail aboard the Lusitania openly warning that the ship was subject to a surprise attack at any time. The sinking of the Lusitania was the first of those surprise attacks and the ship sank less than twenty minutes after it was first hit.

In April of 1917, when Germany resumed attacking ships bound for Europe without warning, even Wilson was ready to join the war. After Congress declared war on Germany, they quickly enacted the Selective Service Act.

WWI Recruitment Poster

All males between the ages of twenty-one and thirty years of age were then required to register for military service. By September 12, 1918, nearly twenty-four million American men had registered. Around four million were ultimately drafted into the armed services and of those, about half served overseas during the war.

By July 1918 there were over a million U.S. soldiers in France. At one point, they were arriving at nearly a thousand per day.

More than two million troops eventually reached Europe, but many arrived too late to see any action. The United States suffered over a quarter million casualties during the war, with over one hundred and twelve thousand of those men dying, nearly half from disease.

The honor roll at the Union Cemetery in Easton contains thirty-five names of those who served during the “Great War.” Whether that is a reliable and accurate count is debatable. There are at least two names on that list whose military records lack any physical connection to Easton, and one of them is the only man listed as having “Fallen.” While the young man named on the plaque did perish while serving his country, he died stateside during elective surgery at an army hospital in New York. The reality is that Easton lost none of its Doughboys to battle.

Names of those who served in WWI from Easton.

In 1917, Easton was still very much a farming community. Many of the original Anglican farm families from the nineteenth century had either called it quits or scaled back their operations by the turn of the century. However, empty farmlands didn’t stay untilled for long. A new generation of Eastern European immigrants bought up the vacated properties and began raising vegetables and selling the milk from their cows to the ever-expanding dairy processing plants in Bridgeport.

But when the first World War was first raging in Europe, the population in Easton was more isolated from the world than we might imagine. Broadcast radio was still several years away, and the widespread use of television wouldn’t follow radio for nearly another twenty after that. Automobiles were far and few between in rural communities such as Easton, and there were no railroads that ran through town. News from the outside world was usually nearly a week old before some of the better-informed citizens of town read it in the newspaper. While Bridgeport had several newspapers, some that were published twice every day, home delivery of those publications would have been only by mail. Getting a newspaper within a day or so of its printing would have been a rarity.

In preparation for what most politicians deemed the inevitable, on February 17, 1917, the Connecticut State Legislature passed a bill authorizing Governor Holcomb to conduct a military census of men over the age of eighteen. Those census forms provide us with a wealth of information about the male population of the day. Many of those men would eventually be drafted into military service once the United States entered the war later that year.

John George and Elizabeth Regina Keller emigrated from Wurttemberg, Germany in 1853. They purchased a farm on Adams Road in Easton sometime in the 1870’s. When John passed in 1886, he left the farm to his eldest son, George. George married recent German immigrant Wilhelmina Handtmann in 1890. The couple had a daughter and two sons – John born in 1894 and Joseph born in 1897.

In early 1917, each of the Keller boys completed their military census within two weeks of its inception. John was employed as a chauffeur for Nathanial W. Bishop, the president of the Iron Ledge Company on North Street in Bridgeport, while Joseph was working as a surveyor for the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company.

John Keller enlisted the National Army on October 16, 1917. He trained at Camp Devens where he remained stationed until July 8, 1918. His unit was then transferred to Company B of the 3rd Corps Artillery Park of the 1st Army Corps and he was promoted to the rank of Corporal. His unit then sailed from Halifax to Le Harve, France arriving there on July 26, 1918.

1917 Camp Devens, Massachusetts where John Keller trained before being sent to France in July of 1918

Keller’s unit arrived on the Meuse-Argonne Front on August 20, 1918. They took part in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive that began on September 18th of that year and lasted forty-seven days, ending only at the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918. That offensive was the largest and longest conflict involving the American Expeditionary Force, resulting in the loss of some twenty-six thousand American troops. Keller’s unit then remained at the Argonne Front until May of 1919. They were returned to the United States in July of that year, and Keller was discharged on July the 14th, soon returning to his civilian job as chauffeur to Mr. Bishop.

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive that began in September of 1918 lasted 47 days and resulted in the loss of over 26,000 American lives. Two of the Easton Doughboys in this article fought in this campaign – both survived.

Younger brother, Joseph, enlisted in May of 1918. Since he was a trained surveyor, Joseph was assigned to Company G of the 29th Engineers and underwent his training at Camp Humphries, Virginia from mid-May until August of 1918. Keller’s unit sailed from Hoboken on October 7th, reaching Brest, France on the 20th. It was the 1st of November before Company G reached a staging area at Langres, France; only ten days before the end of the hostilities. Unlike his older brother, Joseph was not forced to endure the horrors of battle. After his discharge on July 15, 1919, one day after his brother was discharged from the same military base at Camp Upton, Joseph returned home to once again work for the BHC.

American Engineers surveying the French landscape during WWI. Joseph Keller was part of a similar unit.

John settled in Monroe where he ran a butcher shop until the beginning of World War II, and Joseph remained in the employment of the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company through the construction of the Saugatuck Reservoir in 1941. In 1942, both brothers began working for the Bridgeport Brass Company. Joseph lived on the family farm on Adams Road for most of his life. In 1924, he ran an unsuccessful campaign to be elected to the Connecticut State Legislature as the representative from Easton. Joseph died in 1979 and John passed in 1981. The family farm has since been sold and divided. The land is now part of the Aspetuck Land Trust as well as the parcel that became the development that lines both sides of Keller’s Farm Road.

Elbert Perkins Nichols was raised on his great grandfather Perkins French’s 150-acre farm on Maple Road in Easton. Today the eastern section of that land holds Edna Ferber’s 1939 Treasure Hill Estate, while the western lands are part of the Paine Open Space parcel. The only remnants that remain of the original farm is a foundation of a large English style hay barn built in 1847 that sits on the Paine property. It should be noted that Elbert’s father was Charles F. Nichols, and his signature can be seen on many of the selective service cards belonging to the young men of Easton in 1917, since he was the official registrar for Selective Service in Easton.

Unlike most of the young men in Easton during the first years of the 20th century, Nichols had obtained twelve full grades of education by attending the Worcester Academy in Massachusetts prior to being accepted at Brown University as a member of the class of 1919. His studies, however, were interrupted in December of 1917 when he answered the draft. He was inducted into the National Army where he was assigned to the Quartermaster Corps, Motor Car Company 301 of the Motor Car Division. His unit trained at Camp Joseph E. Johnston in Jacksonville, Florida between January and March of 1918.

The pennant for the Quartermaster Corps at Camp Joseph E. Johnston in Jacksonville, Florida, 1918

Arriving in Brest, France on April 14, 1918, Nichols’ group was then attached to Base Section #2 of the American Expedition Force base headquarters at Bordeaux from April 16th of that year until July 7, 1919. Apparently less than pleased that he was sitting in France for months after the hostilities had ended, Sergeant Nichols wrote in his 1919 Military Questionnaire, signed September 10, 1919: “I feel that military service is a means to an end and when necessity for such service no longer exists, such service should be immediately discontinued.”

Nichols was discharged on July 28, 1919. He returned to his studies at Brown and graduated with the class of 1920. His father sold the farm in Easton in 1925 and E. Perkins Nichols settled in Stratfield where he spent his entire career in the banking business, retiring from the mortgage department of People’s Savings Bank in Bridgeport in 1961. He died in 1982 at the age of 86.

Brown University Yearbook, 1920. Elbert Perkins Nichols. Although Nichols clearly resided in the town of Easton, the mailing address was Stepney. Elbert would be known by his middle name, Perkins, for the greater part of his life.

Unlike the other young men in this article, Frank Augustine Starr was not an Easton native. Born in 1888 in Otsego County, New York, Starr was working as a farm laborer on Elmer S. Andrews’ spread on North Park Avenue in 1917. Starr entered the service on November 17, 1917 at Fort Terry, New York where he was assigned to Battery D of the 56th Regiment of the Coastal Artillery. Arriving in Brest, France in April of 1918, his unit was stationed in Clermont-Ferrand where Starr was taught to drive a tractor and promoted to the rank of Wagoner.

Beginning in September, as part of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, Starr was tasked with hauling a thirteen-ton French 55 mm long rifle canon into battle. In describing his experiences in that offensive, Starr recalled: “This experience is very hard to explain as I saw thirty men in my own battery fall one night and shells were bursting all around us for two days and nights. But it was our duty to face them to bring us liberty, so we all did it…Before the war my mind was free and clear. And since I have returned to civilian life, I am more or less nervous all the time.” This was taken from his Military Questionnaire, signed and dated May 6, 1919.

The type of tractor and canon that Wagoner Frank A. Starr would have pulled into battle during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in the fall of 1918.

After the war, Starr returned to Easton to resume working for Elmer Andrews. He was unable to shake his fears and soon moved on. Later U.S. Censuses show him working as a farm laborer in New Fairfield and then as a painter in Danbury. He married, but his wife soon left him. Records from the Veteran’s Hospital at Tongus, Maine show Starr’s admittance for two extended stays in 1931 and 1933. He died at Danbury in 1938, at the age of only 50. While no records could be located that indicated the cause of death, it might be surmised that the mental anguish that Frank suffered from his memories of the war might have been a contributing factor.

The last of our Easton doughboys covered here was Herbert Booth Turney, the middle son of Samuel and Cornelia Turney who lived on Center Road in a house built in 1790 by Joseph Wilson on land leased from the Staples Trustees. Three generations of the Turney family lived in that house beginning in 1840. It still stands at 360 Center Road. Turner sons, Leroy, Herbert, and Richard were born in 1890, 1893, and 1895 respectively, making all three eligible for military service during the First World War. However, it was only Herbert who was drafted to serve his country. At the time of his induction, Herbert was working as a union carpenter for the Tracy Brothers, a large construction company based in Waterbury.

Herbert Booth Turney c.1919

Inducted into the Coast Artillery on December 18, 1917, Turney was assigned as a mechanic to the 36th Company stationed at Fort Terry in New York. His unit remained there until August 8, 1918. He was then transferred to Battery B of the 68th Artillery and shipped to Tilbury, England on August 9th. From there the unit was sent to St. Denis de Pile, France on September 5, 1918 where they would remain through the end of the war, never seeing battle.

Corporal Turney was discharged on February 27, 1919, returning to Connecticut where he would resume his occupation as a union carpenter. He married Alice Drew two months later, on May 9, 1919, and the pair eventually resided on California Street in Stratford. They had three daughters. Herbert Booth Turney died on August 27, 1990 at the age of 97.

I would like to express our thanks and gratitude to the Historical Records Department of the State Library of Connecticut for retaining the 1919 Connecticut Military Service Questionnaires and then digitally preserving them for future generations to study. It is from these records that a good deal of the information shown in this article was obtained.

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