When World War Knocked on Portland’s Door
A centennial reflection on Maine’s role in WWI
by Matthew Jude Barker
The young man from Portland’s West End was sent to the Western Front to build railroads, not to do battle. But when German soldiers advanced upon the northern French town of Gouzeaucourt that fateful November day 100 years ago, the boy who’d grown up on Brackett Street refused orders to stay safely behind the British army’s lines. A framed piece of paper hanging beneath his portrait inside an American Legion Post describes what followed:
“[W]ishing to do more than stand by while the English were hard pressed, [he] took a gun and fought side by side with his British comrades. Having exhausted all ammunition, [he] armed himself with a trenching tool (shovel) and fought until he was killed.”
Harold Taylor Andrews was the first Mainer serving in an American regiment killed in World War I. He was 24 years old. The Legion Post on Deering Street in Portland bears his name, as does a small public square on Pine Street, where he attended grammar school. But otherwise, this brave young man and the many hundreds of others from Maine who gave their lives fighting the War to End All Wars have been forgotten. As we mark a century since America entered the First World War — and prepare, perhaps, to fight another one — it’s worth recalling how Portland responded as America was engulfed in the first global conflict of modern times.
The infamous spark that lit the devastating wildfire of the Great War was the assassination, in June of 1914, of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Bosnian Serb named Gavrilo Princip. Austria-Hungary’s subsequent declaration of war against the Serbs spread into a continent-wide conflagration due to the alliances each faction had with other nations: the Serbs were allied with the Russians, who in turn were allied with the French and, by extension, the English; Austria-Hungary was allied with Germany, and later joined by Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire.
The United States, under the leadership of President Woodrow Wilson, remained officially neutral when the war began, but it became increasingly difficult to maintain that stance as hostilities spread across the sea separating our country from the conflict. In early 1915, a German cruiser sank an American merchant ship off the coast of Brazil. The William P. Frye, a four-masted steel vessel built in Bath in 1901, was traveling to England with a cargo of wheat. The German government apologized, characterizing the destruction of the Frye as a mistake, but tensions spiked a few months later when a German U-boat torpedoed the British ocean liner Lusitania, sending nearly 1,200 passengers and crew, including 128 Americans, to a watery grave.
While sporadic attacks on U.S. and British civilian ships continued during the months that followed, the Germans tried to keep America out of the war in part by conducting a propaganda campaign that appealed to specific ethnic groups in this country. Kaiser Wilhelm II’s agents sought to stoke anti-British anger among the Irish-American community and anti-Russian sentiment among American Jews. This had relatively little effect in Maine, where there were few German communities, though several Irish societies in the state used the conflict to promote an end to British rule in Ireland. Following the old adage that “England’s misfortune is Ireland’s opportunity,” Irish poet Seumas MacManus told an audience in Bangor in 1914 that his country wanted England “to be defeated — to be crushed.” More than 10 percent of Maine’s population was Irish in those days, but their affinity for America trumped their antagonism toward the British.
There were more pacifists in America during the run-up to World War I than school textbooks have led you to believe. Then, as now, many Americans viewed war as a clash of economic, rather than strictly national, interests. They suspected that financial elites — like the banker J.P. Morgan, who made a fortune brokering deals with foreign governments during WWI — had more influence over American war policy than our generals and elected representatives did. However, as the war dragged on and news of German atrocities was amplified by American journalists and propagandists, there were fewer and fewer advocates for peace in Maine and the rest of the nation.
In his 1940 book How Maine Viewed The War, 1914-1917, State Department historian and Bangor native Edwin Costrell wrote, “The American peace movement might have made considerable headway had not the Germans associated themselves with it.” Maine’s massive French-Canadian population was understandably unsympathetic to the hordes of German troops churning the farmland of France into bloody mud deep enough to drown grown men.
Most Maine newspapers were steadfastly in favor of the Allies’ cause, and they occasionally printed stories about German agents lurking in our midst and plotting havoc. Reports circulated as early as November 1914 that Germans were operating a hidden telegraph station near Bar Harbor. Most of these conspiracy theories fizzled out, though a zealous German army reservist named Werner Horn, working under the direction of spymaster Franz von Papen, did try to blow up the railway bridge between Vanceboro, Maine and the Canadian hamlet of St. Croix in February 1915, ostensibly to prevent Japanese troops from joining the war effort via transport through Canada. (Horn’s suitcase full of explosives, lit with a cigar during a frigid gale, caused only minor damage, and he was quickly identified and arrested.)
Patriotic fervor for war had reached a fever pitch in Maine by early 1917, especially after it was revealed, through an intercepted telegram, that Germany was trying to persuade Mexico to attack the U.S. in exchange for assistance winning back territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. On March 16th of that year, as many as 8,000 Mainers paraded through town to the Portland Exposition Building (the Expo), where Governor Carl Milliken gave a rousing pro-war speech to a crowd that included white-bearded Civil War veterans, one of whom clenched a torn flag from that bloody conflict. A headline in a local paper declared that what became known as the Preparedness Day Parade was the “Greatest Demonstration of Patriotism in Maine’s History.”
The Cumberland County Committee on Public Safety, a 25-member body headed by Robert Braun (of the big downtown Portland department store Porteous, Mitchell & Braun), was appointed by the governor to help coordinate the civic mobilization effort. In late March, the committee set up its headquarters at the former New England Telephone & Telegraph Company building on the corner of Milk and Exchange streets. The National Guard set up a huge army tent in Monument Square to accept enlistees. Not to be outdone, the Navy dispatched a special “recruiting auto” around town to attract new members.
“There was no questioning it: the people of Maine had decided on war,” Costrell wrote. “The Teutonic pirate must be taught his lesson. American honor must be vindicated.”
Among the earliest and most enthusiastic converts to the cause were members of Portland’s numerous immigrant communities. The Eastern Argus ran a story about three young Greek men who, shortly after applying for their naturalization papers, walked into the Maine State Armory on Milk Street in early April of 1917, when war was formally declared, and enlisted in the Maine National Guard. They were Jacob Brown, “a veteran of the Balkan wars,” and his companions, Constantine Litrocapes and Arthur Escolas. All three were assigned to Captain Vernon Hall’s 2nd Company, Coast Artillery Corps. “Now that they are under the Stars and Stripes they were ready to take up rifles to defend it,” the paper reported. Local Irish, Italian, Polish, Armenian, Syrian, Jewish, French-Canadian and Scandinavian immigrants also swelled the military’s ranks that spring and summer.
The Argus also published an article about a 20-year-old mechanic, who lived on Spring Street, named Robert E. Lee. Lee, the son of a man from New Orleans and a woman from Ireland, was the first student at Portland High to own a motorcycle and one of the first members of the Portland Motorcycle Club. He enlisted as a machinist mate in the Navy’s aviation corps and, on April 5, left for Pensacola, Florida, where his “knowledge of motor engines will be invaluable to his apprenticeship as an aviator,” the paper said.
The previous week, eight other young men had “presented themselves at the navy recruiting station” to become aviators, the Argus reported. That group included a former football and baseball star from Portland High, James H. Walsh, and Francis J. McDonnell, the city councilman from Ward 2 (Munjoy Hill) and president of the Portland Bricklayers Union. Many of Maine’s enlistees were initially stationed at Fort Williams (now the site of a popular park in Cape Elizabeth) and Fort Preble (now part of the campus of Southern Maine Community College).
On April 5, the day before the U.S. formally declared war against Germany, Bishop Louis Sebastian Walsh, leader of Maine’s 150,000 Roman Catholics, gave a stirring sermon to his communicants at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, in Portland. “This is not a time to express individual opinions,” the bishop declared. “It is a time for every good Catholic to remember that his only thought is for his country.” Bishop Walsh asked the parishioners “to pray for a speedy end of the war and all of the horrors which would follow in its course.” He announced that there would be special services on Easter Sunday in all the Catholic churches in the state “for the successful guidance of this country in its actions during the war.”
The bishop’s remarks were front-page news in the Portland papers. Just days earlier, Walsh had urged his flock to pray for peace.
Harold T. Andrews
Harold Taylor Andrews had a patriotic fighting spirit in his blood. His father, William Wallace Andrews, was named for the legendary medieval Scottish knight who fought the English army to the bloody end. His grandfather was named America Andrews, and Harold was also a descendant of David Andrews, a soldier in the Revolutionary War.
Harold attended Butler School, on Pine Street, where his father was the principal, and went on to Hebron Academy, a boarding school in Oxford County, in 1912. He was an average student but an outstanding athlete who played football and baseball and captained the track team. He also played the mandolin and was quite popular among his classmates, who admired his confident optimism and sense of humor. After graduating from Hebron in 1914, Andrews enrolled at the University of Maine at Orono and studied chemical engineering. He left college after his sophomore year to take a job with Standard Oil Company, in New Jersey. He enlisted in May of 1917, joining Company B of the 11th Regiment of New York Engineers.
The 11th Regiment arrived in England in July 1917 and was put under the command of British General Julian Byng. Byng helped plan and execute the attack on German forces in November of that year, known as the Battle of Cambrai, that provoked the ferocious counter-offensive that claimed Andrews’ life.
An article about Andrews published in the Advertiser Democrat last May, citing a military history of his regiment, notes that the engineers “were issued shrapnel helmets, box respirators, and P.H. helmets (a type of gas mask, cloth hood, with glass eye pieces and a rubber and metal mouth piece).” Their work building and repairing rail lines often left them exposed to enemy fire and shelling while combat troops were hunkered down in trenches. The “Fighting Engineers,” as they came to be called, were issued rifles, but it was common for them to carry only the picks and shovels they used in their work, since they were not deployed to engage the enemy.
That was the case on Nov. 30, 1917, when German soldiers, some wielding flamethrowers, unexpectedly descended on the little town of Gouzeaucourt in pursuit of retreating British troops. It’s said that Andrews commandeered an abandoned machine gun and shot a number of Germans before he ran out of ammo and was left with a shovel to defend himself. In total, six men from his regiment lost their lives that day, another 13 were wounded and 11 were taken prisoner. Over the course of two and a half weeks, the Battle of Cambrai cost the Allies roughly 44,000 casualties; the Germans lost 45,000 personnel to injury, capture or death. (Andrews was not the first Mainer killed in WWI; others from our state died fighting with Canadian forces earlier in the war.)
Andrews’ fate was not immediately known back home. That Christmas, a rumor spread that he’d been taken prisoner by the Germans. His body was first buried in France, then returned to Maine in 1921, three years after the Great War ended. His flag-draped casket was placed in the rotunda of Portland City Hall and, following a parade held in his honor, thousands of mourners filed past to pay their respects, according to news reports. American Legion Post 17 was named for Andrews, and the Portland Rotary Club dedicated a memorial to him that year at the site of Butler School, where Pine and West streets converge.
That memorial was rededicated two years ago, on Veterans Day. As a soft rain fell, military officers and politicians, including Sen. Angus King, addressed a small crowd that included several veterans. King read from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address. Delivered in 1861, the speech was an attempt to persuade the seven states that had seceded from the Union and formed the Confederacy not to take up arms against their countrymen. “We are not enemies, but friends,” King said, quoting Lincoln. “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
According to a news item the Rotary Club submitted to the Bangor Daily News, Maine’s junior senator said monuments like the one in Andrews Square “are the mystic chords that bind us together. Like the spirits that linger on the battlefield, the vision is passed down to us. We touch that mystic chord, and remember those who gave their lives. This monument is to Harold T. Andrews, and it is also a memory for all.”
In September of this year, King — a wealthy businessman, former governor and TV show host who’s never served in the armed forces — joined Sen. Susan Collins and 87 other senators from both parties in a vote to approve a $700 billion Pentagon spending bill. The measure allocates $37 billion more for basic military operations than the increase sought by President Donald Trump. Three weeks later, Republican Bob Corker, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (who voted against the Pentagon-spending bill), warned the nation that Trump is leading us “on the path to World War III.”
Shortly after Corker’s warning, King appeared at an event in North Berwick hosted by Pratt & Whitney, a defense contractor that manufactures propulsions systems for fighter jets. Dozens of high-school students were there to showcase their robotics projects. King climbed into the cockpit of a flight simulator and “pretended to fly” a fighter jet, according to an article in Biddeford’s Journal Tribune. The senator echoed the comments of company executives who told the young engineers that they’ll have opportunities to help design and build the next generation of war machines. “That’s why we’re talking to you,” King said. “You’re all needed.”
About 35,000 Mainers served in World War I, and over 1,000 were killed in the conflict. The First World War gave humanity its first experience of the terrible carnage modern weaponry can inflict. Military and political leaders of that age realized that the scientists and engineers who develop and manufacture new weapons technologies were as important to the war effort, if not more so, than the grunts on the ground doing the fighting. Put another way, individual acts of courage on the battlefield — celebrated in centuries past — don’t make much difference when you’re being gassed or mowed down by machine-gun fire like blades of grass before a scythe. “If war was once a chivalrous duel, it’s now a dastardly slaughter,” the Austro-Hungarian general Arthur von Bolfras said in September of 1914, just weeks into the fighting. The subsequent development of nuclear weapons took this lesson to its apocalyptic conclusion.
Portland historian Herb Adams was at the 2015 rededication ceremony, and he recently provided a comment about Andrews and his legacy. “The technological horrors [WWI] released — gas, tanks, flamethrowers, trenches, germ warfare — have blackened the story of the 20th and 21st Centuries,” Adams wrote in an e-mail. “That genie is out of the bottle, and there is no going back. Young Harold T. Andrews symbolizes it all, for Maine — and Maine has mostly forgotten him, and his war, too.”