If the sun shines on us this Veterans Day, a shadow will fall across north Minneapolis on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the 100th anniversary of the last day of the First World War.
There will be music and speeches at the World War I memorial on Victory Memorial Drive Sunday morning, just like there were nine decades ago, when the memorial was dedicated to the 568 Hennepin County soldiers, sailors and Marines who marched off to the Great War, never to return.
Thirty thousand people came to the dedication in 1921, when the loss was fresh and young veterans still fit in their doughboy uniforms and grieving mothers wept as the shadow from the memorial’s flagpole touched a granite marker every Nov. 11, turning the memorial into a giant sundial set to the anniversary of the armistice.
The crowd will be smaller this year. One hundred years and half a dozen wars have passed since the War to End All Wars. The weeping mothers are long gone and the doughboys are too. The last surviving World War I veteran, Frank Buckles, died in 2011 at age 110. Even the 568 elm saplings they planted in memory of “our comrades who ‘Went West’ who made the supreme sacrifice for our country” were felled by Dutch elm disease.
But 118,500 Minnesotans served in World War I and 3,607 of them died, and this year, like every year, Minnesota remembers.
“I think it will all be over soon,” Pvt. William Fossum wrote in a chatty letter back home to his family in Dassel, Minn., on Oct. 18, 1918. “Do not worry about me, mother dear as [God] will take good care of me and bring me back to you all in safety.”
Fossum was killed in action a few weeks later, on Nov. 11, Armistice Day.
Back home, Minnesota officials gathered all the information they could about the thousands of young men and women they lost to the war. For the past year, the Minnesota Historical Society has been unearthing those records, and other treasures from the state’s vast archives, and posting the stories online as a World War I daybook.
Fossum’s last letter home — including a plea for his family to send him a Christmas care package stuffed with “as much Home made candy as you can” — ran as an October Daybook entry, along with a photo of him in a sharp-looking suit, hair parted straight down the middle, looking heartbreakingly young.
“His ambitions [were] mostly farming. His sports mostly fishing and hunting,” his file in the Gold Star Roll noted. “His associates were mostly home folks ... He had many friends all around him.”
He was 25 years old.
For the historians who compiled the Daybook, these glimpses of the people behind the names carved into monuments were “one of the most touching things,” said Lori Williamson, acquisitions and outreach coordinator at Minnesota Historical Society.
“His chief desire was to be a minister,” Marine Pvt. Ernest Aselton’s mother told the clerk filling out his Gold Star paperwork. Ernest, a church deacon back home in Wayzata, “made friends where ever he went, was a lover of Nature [and] took part in good clean sports such as fishing.”
On Oct. 8, 1918, Ernest volunteered to brave heavy machine gun and artillery fire to bring up reinforcements to help push back a German counterattack. He was killed by shrapnel and awarded a posthumous Croix de Guerre.
“The fellows are doing big things on the front these days,” he wrote his family in August 1918. “I wouldn’t be anywhere else for the world now. It is great.”
The more stories you read from the Western Front and the home front, the closer 1918 feels to 2018. The young soldiers and nurses were funny and candid and oh so brave. Their families back home were terrified — both of what was happening overseas and what could happen in Minnesota, with all those immigrants running around.
“[O]ur German fellow-citizens are … ugly and apparently not at all loyal to the country of their adoption,” one Minnesotan wrote U.S. Sen. Knute Nelson in 1917.
Since Congress was considering new treason and sedition laws, the concerned citizen had a suggestion: threaten German-Americans with the confiscation of their property.
“[T]he great majority of the German-American citizens are very thrifty,” he wrote in a letter that found its way to the archives. “There is nothing that would tend to keep them in line to a greater extent than fear of losing their property.”
German-Americans were tarred and feathered in Minnesota during the war. The editor of a German-language newspaper in New Ulm was imprisoned and the city’s German-American mayor and city attorney were kicked out of office.
“It was a rough time,” said Williamson, the historian, who helped fill the daybook with accounts of not just love and loss in war, but the influenza pandemic and catastrophic fires that devastated Minnesota in 1918.
The armistice anniversary ceremony starts at 10 a.m. at the Victory Memorial Drive flagpole at 45th Avenue N. and Victory Memorial Drive. Dress for the weather and bring a chair if you need one.
To read the World War I Daybook, visit: www.mnhs.org/blog/collectionsupclose/ww1daybook
The veterans of the First World War are gone now. But we have 20 million veterans in America today and you don’t need to wait a century to hear their stories. Just ask.