Historian honors 700 Putnam veterans from WWI
By Michael Turton
Roderick Cassidy, a Brewster resident who served in the U.S. Army for 19 years, spent two years compiling the biographies of hundreds of service members and civilians for his book, Putnam County Veterans of World War I, published in May.
Why did you write the book?
In late 1918, Putnam County collected information for what was supposed to be a book of remembrance honoring those who served in “the war to end all wars,” but it was never finished. I felt honor-bound to write the book; it was promised to World War I veterans. We are lessened as a community if we permit their sacrifice to fade into the mist of history.
How many Putnam residents served?
I estimate 699, including 258 from Philipstown, eight of whom made the supreme sacrifice. Of the 23 from Putnam County who died, 12 were killed in action or died of wounds, 10 died from the flu, and one died by accident.
What role did women play?
Fifteen Putnam women served, the majority as nurses. Edith Diehl and Marjorie Addis were guiding forces in the Woman’s Land Army. Philipstown’s Helena Fish, daughter of Hamilton Fish, served with the Red Cross in France. She supported the suffrage movement. While still in the service, she was the only Putnam woman to register to submit an absentee ballot in the primary election of 1919.
Did troops still die after the Armistice was signed on Nov. 11, 1918?
The Armistice was signed at 5:10 a.m. but the ceasefire did not start until 11 a.m. Ironically, folks in New York City knew about the Armistice and celebrated hours before the boys in the trenches got the word. Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of U.S. forces, thought the terms of Germany’s surrender were too lenient and encouraged officers to advance before the looming deadline. American forces suffered about 3,000 casualties on the last morning of the war. An inquiry held no one accountable. The last American was reportedly killed at 10:59 a.m. by a reluctant German machine-gunner who knew the war was all but over but couldn’t convince the charging Americans to stop.
How did military induction at the time differ from the Civil War?
It was certainly “fairer” in World War I. A Civil War draftee could pay a substitute $300 to take his place, so the rich could avoid military service. There were only two options in WWI: volunteer or be drafted. Putnam County draft boards were disinclined to grant deferments or exemptions, but if a man could afford college and pay for training camp, he would likely become an officer. Many men paid to go to boot camp before the war started to position themselves for a commission.
Is there a Philipstown story you found especially interesting?
Col. Percy Weir Arnold, from Cold Spring, died in France on Jan. 25, 1919, after the war. The Army said he died from “accidental injuries.” The New York Times said he died as a result of a railroad accident. The Boston Herald said he died after falling down a flight of stairs. Why two different versions?
How will you observe Veterans Day?
I’ll spend some of the day with fellow veterans but most of the day with my family. When you go off to war, they serve too. I’m fairly certain that my being deployed to Afghanistan [in 2012] was more stressful for my wife and children than it was to me.