On Nov. 30, 1917, Cpl. Harold T. Andrews of Portland became the first Mainer in the American Expeditionary Forces to die in combat in World War I. This son of a prominent Portland educator died when his engineering unit was called into combat to fight a German offensive on the Cambrai front in France.

America had entered the war in April 1917. A month later, young Andrews volunteered and joined a New York-based engineering unit. American engineers were badly needed to improve a French railroad system that was woefully inadequate and badly needed for moving incoming American troops from French coastal ports to the inland battlefields.

Harold Andrews reflected service by “the best” of young Americans in the war. That included both volunteers like Andrews and thousands of draftees who followed him. By the Armistice on Nov. 11, 1918, America included among its military deaths the immediate past mayor of New York City, one of the leading members of the House of Representatives, one of the outstanding collegiate athletes of his year and the son of former President Theodore Roosevelt. A present analogy might be to imagine the death in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars of Rep. Paul Ryan, one of several young big-city mayors who were being considered future presidential prospects, one of the Bush or Obama daughters, or a Trump son and a recent Heisman Trophy winner.

At the time of Andrews’ death, the world war was not going well for America and its allies. Earlier news in November 1917 reported that Germany had effectively won the war on the Eastern front and that former ally Russia was drifting into anarchy and civil war. Ally Italy was faced with German and Austrian invading forces. France had changed its civilian leadership after 18 months of horrific losses and a mutiny of some of its troops. German submarines still threatened to cut food supplies to Great Britain. America was becoming aware of what it meant to declare war on Germany, often described in congressional debate as the “most powerful military nation in history.” While few American leaders spoke of it publicly, few of them did not wonder: “Have we joined too late?”

The next 12 months would answer that question. It would see America rising to numerous challenges that it had never, or rarely, faced before. Among those were how to raise an army, how to fight as part of a major alliance, what financial assistance to give to those allies, how to pay for those costs and what other sacrifices civilians would have to make. It also had to deal with serious issues that did not arise from the war but were influenced by it such as votes for women, race conflicts, prohibition of alcohol, labor-management relations and treatment of immigrants.

On Nov. 30, 2017, a small group gathered at Andrews Square on Pine Street in Portland to commemorate the centennial of Cpl. Andrews’ death. We then adjourned for further discussion of what was known a century ago as the “war to end all wars.” Today, we reflected it might be called “the forgotten war.” Sadly, efforts to remember the World War I centennial have received little support from government leaders in Washington who in earlier years boosted remembrance of the centennial of the Civil War and the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. We speculated on the reasons for this. Fortunately, a state of Maine World War I Centennial Commission has been tasked with correcting that oversight.

What the study of the American experience in World War I reminds us of is how the issues of 1917 still resonate a century later. Foreign alliances, military spending, racial tensions, taxation, the roles of women in society, sacrifice by all members of society rather than just the men (and now women) in uniform are still with us. They also emphasize how much those two years of the war era shaped the American century that followed as we debate what the next century should look like.


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