Recalling the fallen of a war that wasn't
Opening with a couple of personal recollections, we'll lead this year's Armistice (or Veterans) Day oration back to the improbable Aroostook War of the 1800s and do the subject a lot of good. As to Armistice Day, I was there as a schoolboy on Nov. 11, 1918, when we held the first one.
We tripped unwillingly to school as usual, and our teachers were on the front steps of the schoolhouse with the morning newspaper and its banner headline: GERMANY SURRENDERS. There would be no school today, but our teachers didn't know what to do.
In but a short time, an extemporaneous parade started on the main street. We scholars and teachers fell in, and we paraded from one end of town to the other, back and forth a mile or better each trip. That took care of the forenoon until the procession quit for lunch. It resumed in the afternoon, and, although some weary folks dropped out, it still marched into the night. There was no band. Jack Randall drove his automobile, the only automobile in town, in the parade.
In 1966, we were in Paris and attended the Armistice exercises at the Arch of Triumph, the most moving patriotic experience of our lives. We had been to the carrefour, where the armistice railway coach is sidetracked into a permanent shelter and may be visited.
Here, the paper was signed that ended the hostilities of World War I. It is a quiet place in well-groomed woodland, a keepsake for France from her less-happy days. From that we had wandered, and as Armistice Day approached, we were going from Orleans to Paris to be at the arch on Nov. 11. And without knowing it, we were on the very route President de Gaulle would take for the same purpose.
As we drove along, we were curious about the soldiers we saw every half kilometer, each with a machine gun mounted on a tripod and aimed right at us. We didn't know that De Gaulle had a villa down that way and would be riding to Paris along with us. His security guard had become monotonous before we arrived safely in Paris.
He arrived as safely as we did. At 11 hours the next forenoon, we heard him give the holiday oration under the Arch of Triumph. May I say here that these people who want to replace the French anthem must not have heard the Marseillaise played on Armistice Day under the Arch of Triumph. The tune they've got does quite enough.
We learned there is an American Legion post in Paris, and we watched the doughboys lay a sheaf of gladioli on the grave of the French unknown.
Not long ago, we had here the story of Pvt. Hiram Smith, the only military casualty of the improbable "bloodless" Aroostook War, the only war the United States ever fought that didn't take place. No battles ensued, no shot was fired. But Militiaman Smith managed to perish on the march and was buried by the roadside. His grave has a stone and the lot is cared for.
As the only soldier victim of this strange conflict between England and the US, you might expect that his grave is all we have to remind us that the Aroostook War, like all the others, came to an end. But that is not so. The absurd war that never began had a better ending than that.
As this year's Armistice Day story, how is this?
When the War of 1812 ended, England didn't abide by the treaty agreements and continued to claim land between Maine and Canada that had been awarded to Maine. This brought on the threat of war, and both nations prepared. Forts were built in Maine for border defense, and one of them was Fort Fairfield, named for a Maine governor. It was in what is now the township of Fort Fairfield, on Fort Hill. It was garrisoned by the militia and stood ready if needed.
Then the dispute was settled by the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, and the war that never began came to an end. In truth, as we look at things with the wisdom of hindsight, ol' Daniel Webster, the great brain of the day, was taken to the cleaners by shrewd Lord Ashburton, but you don't want to say that to anybody from New Hampshire.
Orders came to the commanding officer of Fort Fairfield that because the threat of invasion was over, the fort was to be returned to peaceful purposes and the garrison mustered out. It seems the CO took it upon himself to improvise slightly, and he decided to fire a musketry volley from the ramparts to inform the villagers that the war was over.
Of course, there hadn't been any war, and the townsfolk had long since ceased to pay any attention. Nevertheless, powder, balls, wadding, and flints were issued to each man, and the muskets were loaded. Smartly, the militia mounted to the parapet, and at the command to fire, a volley burst over the peaceful countryside to scare everybody out of his wits. Everybody thought the Aroostook War had begun!
Sadly, there was a casualty. Nathan Johnston, civilian farmer, was reaping grain in his field, and a stray ball from the volley struck him fatally. Dismayed, the soldiers in the fort chipped in to buy a memorial stone, and it may be seen today on Nathan's grave in the cemetery in Fort Fairfield.
And we are left to wonder forever why the foolish CO didn't let his men shoot blanks. So Hiram Smith was the only soldier, and Nathan Johnston the only civilian to perish in the otherwise bloodless Aroostook War.
Let Armistice Day include them.