In mid-September it dawned on me that November 11, 2018 would mark the 100th-anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I.
Intellectually, as an historian, I knew this. I knew it in the same way that I know that water freezes at 32 degrees and objects fall to the earth at 32 feet per second squared. Basic facts that only become relevant in one’s life when it’s important, like when winter weather arrives or one is falling out of a tree. Or when one looks at the calendar and realizes the end of the year is close at hand.
And so I began thinking about making plans.
By October 1st I’d decided that, on November 11th (Veterans Day in the United States, Remembrance Day elsewhere in the world), I’d visit the cemeteries in Baltimore of relatives that had served in World War I and leave flags in their honor. I knew where two were, both were in Loudon Park, but there was a third that I hadn’t visited, hadn’t even looked for. I was going to visit the grave of Irving Boswell, from whom my Boswell cousins are descended, as he was also a World War I veteran. (Irving’s mother was my great-grandfather’s sister, so Irving was my grandfather’s first cousin, though he was older than my grandfather by about thirty years.) Only, I didn’t know where Irving was; I’d seen his obituary, which said he was buried in Holy Cross, but was that the Holy Cross in Baltimore that was relocated to Woodlawn in the late 60s, or was that Holy Cross outside of Baltimore on Ritchie Highway, across the street from Cedar Hill where my great-grandmother Carrie’s family is buried?
Cousins were consulted, and assured that, yes, Irving was in the Holy Cross outside of Baltimore, my plan locked into shape.
I would also visit my grandfather; he was in the Navy’s airship corps in World War II, and I hadn’t been to his cemetery in about a year and half.
Then the Smithsonian’s American History Museum announced a slate of special programming on November 11th to commemorate the end of World War I, and that was very attractive to me. I toyed with the idea that I could visit cemeteries in Baltimore (including one that I had never been to) and then go to the Smithsonian in DC in a single day, and I quickly realized that, like Saruman the Wise, I had abandoned reason for madness. So I would visit the cemeteries on Saturday, the 10th, and the Smithsonian on Sunday, the 11th. On Saturday, I would go and leave flags at Holy Cross, Loudon Park, and Lorraine Park, in that order, and on Sunday I would take in the Smithsonian’s programming.
For about six hours, I thought about attending the Maryland Irish Festival in Timonium on Saturday. Truthfully, though, while there were bands booked that I like, there was no one playing that I felt I had to see, not to mention the arthritis in my left ankle decided this was the weekend to make me miserable, so I dropped the idea. I also thought about visiting Cedar Hill, where my great-great-grandmother, who was my last European ancestor to arrive in North America, is buried, as it’s across the street from Holy Cross, but I got a late start to the day and I wanted to prioritize.
This, then, is my Armistice 100 adventure.
Holy Cross Cemetery
Holy Cross Cemetery is, by and large, a cemetery for south Baltimore Catholics, and there’s a lot of Catholic iconography in the cemetery. One half ot the cemetery, the northern half, has graves adorned with headstones. The other half, the southern half, has ground-level metallic markers. It’s a large cemetery, and finding anything I was looking for, with no more than a half-century old obituary to go by, was less likely than finding a needle in a haystack.
I wasn’t sure where to start, I wasn’t even sure where to park (and then I saw some parking spaces). For whatever reason, I decided I would look through the ground-level metal markers. Up and down rows of markers I went, sometimes kicking fallen oak leaves from the indentations in the grass so I could see the marker underneath. I did this for about twenty minutes, and the impossibility of the task kept nagging at me and my good intentions. “It would take several people all day to thoroughly comb this cemetery,” I thought. I resigned myself to the reality that I was not going to find Irving Boswell this day. I would have to return in the spring, when it was warmer, when I had more time.
And then I stepped in a gopher hole.
I didn’t see it. I couldn’t have seen it; it was filled with leaves. I pitched to the ground, falling flat on my face. My foot never touched bottom. I stayed there on the ground for a good minute, stunned more than anything, the only thing wounded was my pride. I stood up, brushed myself off, and nothing seemed to be broken. I was near the road through the cemetery that divided the north and the south halves, so I decided I would look in the north section, with the headstones, across the road. Just that section, between one access road and the other, and then I’d move on to Loudon Park. Across the road I strode (not even noticing that someone was driving on the road), took my bearings, and began to look.
I walked in a straight line, down this aisle of headstones, looking from one side to another, for any headstone that said “Boswell.” The headstones looked fairly recent to my eyes, and they were very readable. About midway to the cemetery’s fence, looking to my left, I saw a headstone that read not “Boswell” but “Gibson.” I stopped, I stared hard at it, I thought, “I should look at that. I’m sure it’s not a relation, but I should look at it.” Then I panned from left to right, and then I saw it.
“Bloody hell,” I thought. “That’s it.” I made a beeline for it. I never did check out that Gibson headstone.
There were names on the Boswell headstone that I could read as I approached, and these were not names that I recognized. “This isn’t it at all,” I thought. Still, I had to do my due diligence, and when I went around the headstone I saw that it really was what I was looking for.
The grave of Irving Boswell, his wife, and his eldest son. I’d found it through, essentially, sheer damned luck.
I left a flag for Irving, and I read a poem, Siegfried Sassoon’s “Dreamers,” which I posted to the blog on Sunday. Sassoon was one of the “war poets“; Wilfred Owen may be the most famous war poet, and Laurence Binyon’s “For the Fallen” and John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” may be the most famous war poems from World War I, but I like Sassoon’s “Dreamers” for the way it captures humanity lost by the war, the pleasant things in life, the things that bring life its color and its joy, have been replaced by horrible things.
The opposite side of the headstone, the side I’d seen first, was for Irving’s son Edward and his wife Edna, the parents of two of my cousins. Irving, his wife Annie, his son Irving, Jr., and his daughter-in-law all had footstones. Edward, however, did not; I’m told that there was one but it disappeared at some point in the past twenty years.
One World War I veteran down. Two more to go.
Loudon Park Cemetery
In June I learned that Loudon Park Cemetery floods due to rainwater run-off, specifically the part of the cemetery (the Whatcoat section) where my great-great-grandmother is buried. It’s been a rainy year in Baltimore — last week’s rainfall put the year’s total accumulation above 60 inches — and there’s nowhere for the water to go, so it pools.
I’ve been down to the cemetery about once a month since June to see how things look. I take a trash bag, I’ll stop at the Giant up the street and buy flowers to leave and plastic gloves to use, in case I need to clean up the mess around the family graves. Some might thing it silly, even pointless — I never knew my great-great-grandmother as she died seventy-one years before I was born, and the dead are gone and past caring — but I find it meaningful and important.
There were two graves at Loudon Park that I wanted to visit. Phil Stallings was married to a granddaughter of my great-great-grandmother (and the sister of Irving Boswell), and he was one of the eight people buried together in the Whatcoat section, including my great-great-grandmother.
The other… well, that one I’ll explain in time.
Since June, the direct route into Loudon Park’s old cemetery has been blocked off. I’m not sure why, it may have to do with the flooding. Perhaps the bridge that crosses the stream there was damaged or weakened. I really don’t know.
There’s another way in — I call it “the back way” — and it’s a bit more scenic. You climb a hill and, off to the left, there’s the Wiessner Monument, three stories tall, and along the road there are mausoleums built into the hillside, and then there’s the Confederate cemetery, Confederate Hill, off to the right. This side of the cemetery feels old. It’s crowded and cramped and one could spend a year exploring its nooks and crannies and never even come close to scratching the surface.
A deer greeted me as I climbed that hill. I stopped, snapped some photos. The deer didn’t mind. He didn’t run or flinch. I surprised him as much as he surprised me.
For the better part of forty minutes, it would only be the deer and myself on this side of the cemetery. At least, that’s what it felt like.
I made my way down a road that’s become familiar to me now, reached its end, where it meets that road that I would have taken, had it not been blocked off, and turned to the left. And at the top of that hill, it was roped off.
That did not mean Whatcoat was flooded. Yes, we had had heavy rain earlier in the week, but there was another explanation. When I was last here, after Labor Day, the road that runs alongside my great-great-grandmother’s grave had collapsed due to the summer’s rains, and I had no reason to believe it had been repaired.
I parked at the top of the hill — I couldn’t see over it from there to see if Whatcoat were flooded — and walked in.
Of course Whatcoat was flooded.
The run-off lake wasn’t as extensive as it was in June, when the water was nasty, stagnant, and so black it was like a mirror. I could see immediately that my great-great-grandmother’s grave was well away from the floodwaters, a far cry from July’s flooding when half of the monument was under water.
I left a flag and flowers for Phil and, as I had with his brother-in-law Irving, read out Sassoon’s “Dreamers.” He served with the 159th Infantry and saw action (and was wounded) in the Meuse-Argonne offensive in the war’s final weeks. My grandparents knew Phil and his wife Ida (who was one of my grandfather’s first cousins), and my mother has vague recollections of them from childhood.
I left flowers for my great-great-grandmother, her daughter, and the others buried there, too.
There was very little trash to collect around their gravesite — a glass Coke bottle, a couple of plastic wrappers. I also found the battered tin can of tuna fish that was sitting on Arthur Gardner’s grave in July, high up on the hill across the road past my great-great-grandmother’s grave. I had thrown it into the lake then, I guess out of frustration. The “plop!” as it hit the water wasn’t as satisfying as I’d hoped. It was about halfway between Arthur and my great-great-grandmother, which was not at all where I’d thrown it. I picked it up, dropped it in my trash bag, and on Sunday morning I tossed it in the dumpsters at my apartment complex.
When I became curious about Loudon Park Cemetery and its history last year, because I was trying to understand why Susan Gardner and family were buried where they were, I stumbled across this blog post about another’s explorations of Loudon Park’s Whatcoat section. He was looking for — and found — Tod Hall, a 19th-century Baltimore police detective in Whatcoat, and, as the cemetery has flooded several times this year, I also looked for Tod Hall.
A decade and change after that writer found Hall, I stood in front of his headstone. It turns out, I’d found him before, in late July, when Whatcoat was at its flooded worst; I took a photograph of the Halls’ site from behind, showing their bases in the water, attaching no importance to the photo at the time; I was simply trying to document for myself the extent of the devastation.
Closer to Loudon Park’s entrance, another relative from World War I is buried, Edward Hawk, as is his sister, Ada Wehnert.
Edward and Ada’s mother Ella was my great-grandfather’s half sister; Ella was the last child of my great-great-grandfather’s first wife, while my great-grandfather was the last child of my great=great-grandfather’s second wife, the one who is buried in Loudon Park’s Whatcoat section. Ella was married to a Civil War veteran twenty years her senior, Edward Hawk, and they made their home in Washington, DC, until Edward died in 1909, after which Ella and her children moved to Baltimore’s Federal Hill neighborhood, usually living within a block of two of her half-siblings, my great-grandfather or his sister. Ella and Edward are buried in Washington’s Congressional Cemetery, and when I’m there looking for something (as I was earlier this year) I’ll visit their gravesite, which probably no one else has done in ages upon ages.
Their son, Edward… where to begin?
The basic facts are these. Edward served in the Navy. When his ship, the USS Mississippi was in port in New York in early 1918, Edward deserted. He was tried for desertion, convicted, and sent to prison. I don’t know the reason behind Edward’s desertion, only that it happened. Some would quibble with calling him a “veteran,” and I’m sympathetic to that, hence my attempts to be careful in the language I use.
Nonetheless, he was in the military during World War I, and while he has no marked grave, the cemetery’s paperwork indicates that he’s buried in the same general plot as his sister Ada, so I left him a flag, too, and read out Sassoon’s “Dreamers.” And while I don’t believe in an afterlife, perhaps Edward has found in death the peace that seems to have eluded him in life.
As for his sister Ada, who would have been a first cousin to my grandfather, I know very little. I’ve heard that Ella’s daughters were very close, even into their 80s.
Buried about fifty feet away from Ada Wehnert is her first cousin, Mary Schafer. Mary was, like Ida, a daughter of Isabelle, my great-grandfather’s sister, and thus, a first cousin of my grandfather. Mary’s middle child, Thomas, is buried in the Whatcoat plot; he died in March 1917, aged eighteen months. Mary, her husband Leonard, and her eldest son Leonard, are buried on this side of the cemetery.
The human capacity to see patterns in the chaos where there are none is very tempting here. Was there a reason why these first cousins chose gravesites close to one another? Or was it merely a coincidence?
I know, I know. It’s probably a coincidence.
Time to move on.
Lorraine Park Cemetery
It was later in the day than I’d planned, and the sun was quickly going down.
I went to Lorraine Park, where my grandparents are buried. My grandfather was in the Navy during World War II. He worked on Navy airships.
I left a flag. No reading of Sassoon, though; the cemetery was getting ready to lock up, it was cold and bitterly windy, and I couldn’t stay.
With that, I went home. In the morning, I would be off to DC for the events at the American History Museum.
The Museum of American History
Sometime in October, I saw the Smithsonian’s American History Museum announce programming to mark the centenary of the Armistice on Twitter, and my immediate thought was, “I’d like to do that.” I felt like I would enjoy it. I felt like it would be meaningful.
I left home in Pennsylvania about 8:15, and I reached the Greenbelt Metro Station about 9:40. Not a lot of traffic this clear and crisp Sunday morning. By quarter after ten, I was on the National Mall.
The museum’s programming for the day included living history re-enactors, wearing vintage and period outfits. They greeted visitors and talked to them about their uniforms and what their role in the war would have been.
Throughout the museum were also tables with artifacts from World War I that were taken out of storage for display this day only, from helmets and weapons to stuffed animals (like the bird Kaiser) and medical equipment. There were uniforms on display, artifacts from General John J. Pershing’s headquarters (including a replica of the map he used of the Western Front, as the original was too fragile to display), propaganda posters and wax cylinders, watches and whistles.
The ceremony was brief, and I took only this one photo, of one of the reenactors reading “In Flanders Fields.” (He’s the one to right.)
The re-enactor standing to the left was the ceremony’s emcee. He gave a brief speech about the Armistice and the Museum’s plans to commemorate the anniversary. He also explained that, while he’s an American, he was wearing the uniform of a British Tommy because of his great-grandfather, who served in the British Army during World War I.
After the reading of “In Flanders Fields,” the bugler (over the nurse’s shoulder) came out to center, and a Marine color guard from the Washington barracks brought out the flags of the United States and the Marine Corps. There was a two minute silence, the bugler played, and the color guard retreated.
It was all very solemn and quite moving.
After, on the museum’s lower level, besides the display of vintage recruiting and propaganda posters, there were tables set up by other museums with their own stories of World War I — Natural History had a display about the 1919 Influenza epidemic, the Postal Museum had artifacts relating to mail censorship, and the National Parks talked about their role in training soldiers before they went to Europe. I stopped and talked with all of them.
There was also an arts-and-crafts aspect to the programming at the American History Museum; a table was set up on the lower level where one could make a Remembrance Poppy. Or, since the volunteers had made many, one could simply take one pre-made.
I opted to take one myself, but looking at it I saw it was simple enough. It’s two cupcake liners (one large, one small), with a black button in the middle and a black pipe cleaner threaded through to tie it all together. (These instructions are essentially the same; the only difference is they use construction paper instead of a black button and a green pipe cleaner instead of black.) One could make these in other colors, like white (for peace) or purple (to remember the war animals).
I ran the ends of the pipe cleaner through the button hole on my coat, and that worked well enough for wearing it all day at the museum. I tried to treat it carefully — it was something I wanted to keep and treasure — and I put it up in my office Monday morning where it wouldn’t get damaged. The Spongebob button beneath it in a nice touch.
There was programming in the afternoon — “lightning talks” — about artifacts and topics relating to World War I, so I milled about the museum. I made a point of seeing Sgt. Stubby, a bull terrier from the trenches who was “the greatest war dog in the nation’s history.”
There were also two films from the archives being shown on a loop. I don’t recall one of them, I think it was about the arrival of the American Expeditionary Force in Britain, but the other was “General Pershing’s Return,” a twenty-minute film of Pershing and the victory parades in New York and Washington in September 1919.
“General Pershing’s Return” becomes interminable after a while, but there are interesting details in it about American life in 1919. For instance, I was surprised to discover that Washington built an “Arch of Triumph” on Pennsylvania Avenue for Pershing’s army to march through.
Nothing to do with World War I, this is a late 19th-century monumental clock that tells the story of the United States up through the Benjamin Harrison administration. And when I say “tells the story,” parts of it are designed to move. Mechanical animation, I guess.
I attended some of the lightning talks in the afternoon — I didn’t stay for them all — and they were short, fifteen minute presentations. There was one on the German cargo submarines, which were built to evade the British blockade of Germany and trade with neutral powers, like the United States. One, on the “African American Experience,” was basically an overview of the displays on the war at the African American Museum. There was a description of American flag made in Scotland overnight for the burial of American soldiers when the Tuscania was torpedoed off the coast of Islay in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides.
As for souvenirs, besides the remembrance poppy, I bought a reproduction of one of Howard Chandler Christy‘s Navy recruiting posters.
In short, there was a lot of interesting material presented and many things to see and do. Reworking my plans for the weekend for the American History Museum’s commemoration was worth it.
I was glad I went.