One hundred years ago when America entered the War to End All Wars. And Rochester.

One hundred years ago when America entered the War to End All Wars. And Rochester.

[Edmond Lyons Park., East Rochester. A German WW1 minenwerfer (literally, “mine thrower”) in 7.58cm caliber. 4/5/17]

100 years ago today, the United States declared war on Germany in what now has become one of America’s forgotten wars.

Democrat and Chronicle, 06 Apr 1917, Fri, Page 1

Democrat and Chronicle, 06 Apr 1917, Fri, Page 1

The unfortunately misnomered, “War to End All Wars,” was a world catastrophe whose continuation 20 years later led to even greater catastrophe.

About 117,000 American soldiers perished in the sixth months of intense combat: 53,402 battle deaths and 63,114 other deaths in service, many from Spanish flu — a significant number but one that pales compared to the millions who fell in the killing fields of France, Turkey and Russia.


Edmond Lyons Park., East Rochester. World War II monument. 4/5/17

Nonetheless, Rochester suffered. About 23,000 Rochestarians served. And, as reported in recent article by Jim Memmott, A century later, remembering the dead of World War I , at least 609 Monroe County soldiers never returned. But the war itself remains on the margins of American collective memory.


Plaque on the Vietnam Veteran’s Walk of Honor, Highland Park

By comparison, other American wars are etched into the Rochester landscape.  The Civil War commemoration, the Soldier’s and Sailor’s Monument, is the centerpiece of Washington Square Park.  The Civil War cannon in the Pittsford Cemetery is one of many in the area.  Memorials to WWII can be found from Ontario Beach to East Rochester’s Edmund Lyons Park.  The Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Highland Park is a vivid reminder of that awful conflict.

pittsford gun

Civil War cannon. Pittsford Cemetery. 4/5/17

pittsford cannon

WWI German howitzer in Pittsford next to the Canal Path. from Over the Top! Courtesy of the Military History Society of Rochester

ww 1

Mt. Hope Cemetery. World War I and World War II veterans. 4/2/17


Spanish-American War monument. Edmond Lyon’s Park., East Rochester. 4/5/17

By contrast, in the early years after the Armistice of 1918 only one major monument was erected, in Washington Square Park (now under repairs), — an Austrian cannon captured by the Italian army at the battle of Battle of Vittorio Veneto in which only a handful of US troops fought.

That monument itself was not solicited by the people of Rochester but offered by the government of Italy as a good will gesture in 1921. In a battle pitting Austrians and Italians the cannon remains an odd American memorial to the War to End All Wars that wasn’t.¹ In 1932 — 14 years after the Armistace — the town of Pittsford displayed a German howitzer captured on the Western Front (now unceremoniously kept outside the Public Works shed.)

By comparison, the Spanish-American War twenty years earlier in 1898 — the battles lasted about three weeks in which 364 American soldiers were killed — is prominently featured from downtown to Highland Park. Rochestarians gladly accepted trophy cannons from Manila Bay, a tablet displayed in City Hall and the “War Eagle” by the river.  Several rows on graves in Mount Hope are dedicated to Spanish War veterans  — almost all of whom never even came close to Cuba — and their wives. By contrast, in Mount Hope there is a row or two of World War I veterans, but lacking demarcation and intermixed with World War II veterans.


(left to right, top to bottom) Spanish-American War trophy cannon Highland Park, Spanish-American War trophy cannon Mt. Hope Cemetery, graves of Spanish-American War veterans and wives, War Eagle next to War Memorial downtown, City Hall, grave of last Spanish-American widow. [Image created by UR’s Rettner computer lab staff] see On Spanish-American War monuments in Rochester. And remembering the Buffalo Soldiers on Veteran’s Day

two grave

Mt. Hope Cemetery. 4/1/17

To learn more about the forgotten war, I turned to Rundel’s Local History & Genealogy Division librarian Brandon Fess.  Brandon was not surprised that I discovered relatively few markers of the Great War in Rochester. Rochester itself mirrors the national experience. While memorials dot the European landscape — with the notable exception of Italy — Americans mostly chose to forget. As Brandon says:

In direct contrast to the European experience of the war, Americans suffered very little from World War I. The war was short, caused few casualties, and had limited long-term impact. Beyond the limited physical impact of the war, enduring American isolationism and limited national interest in even taking part in the war meant that many people had no interest in memorializing the conflict, seeing our involvement as a bloody mistake. Thus, for Americans, there was little impetus to memorialize the war. The result has been a vacuum of not just memorials, but even of general knowledge about this defining conflict in the minds of most Americans.

1SGT William Paul Higginson

Mt. Hope Cemetery.1SGT William Paul Higginson, Distinguished Service Cross recipient. He was a First Sergeant of the 5th Regiment, 45th Company of the US Marine Corps. He died in service at Chateau Thierry during World War One. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and also the Navy Cross. His citation reads in part: He gave the supreme proof of that extraordinary heroism which will serve as an example to hitherto untried troops. [from Find a Grave]

William Wallace Gilbert

Mt. Hope Cemetery. William Wallace Gilbert, Three Wars Veteran. He began his military career in the 19th U.S. Infantry during the Civil War, was promoted to Captain Major for his distinguished service during the Phillipine Insurrection and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in World War One. The frequent and detailed letters he wrote home during the Civil War have been preserved at the University of Rochester as a valuable historical collection. He was closely related to the University of Rochester, being the nephew of its first President Martin Anderson, and a professor of Latin and Greek there between the Civil and Spanish American Wars. [from Find a Grave]

Nor was Brandon  surprised by the overflow of paens to the Spanish-American War only twenty years earlier.  That war was even shorter, even more popular, and hardly a bloody mistake — all the ingredients well suited for a nationalistic frenzy — while 1918 left Americans wondering why they sent their sons to die.

Rochester may have little impetus to memorialize the war for several reasons.

First, Rochester was home to a thriving German-American community, many of whom had relatives in Germany and traveled back and forth when they could.  Like most German-Americans, they favored American neutrality, fearing a backlash if the United States joined the Allies.  For example, a recent USA Today article, “Anti-German hysteria in city during WWI,” describes how in Cincinnati German-Americans were often suspected to be hidden saboteurs or agents of the Kaiser and that German-sounding buildings and streets were Anglicized and renamed.

Fortunately, this does not seem to have been the case in Rochester. In a 1943 Rochester History essay, Rochester and World War I , Sylvia P. Black and Harriet Julia Naylor write:

As the war advanced, Rochesterians were warned “Don’t talk about the war in public places where a German spy may gather bits of information of value to the enemy.” This warning was not so terse as our “A slip of the lip may sink a ship,” but it was designed for the same purpose. In February of 1918 the Chamber of Commerce went on record as advocating the death penalty for saboteurs. Resentment over the known cases of enemy sabotage and espionage contributed toward an attitude of suspicion and distrust that tended to make life extremely uncomfortable for German-American citizens, the great majority of whom were absolutely loyal to the United States. In Rochester, however, the situation was not so bad as in some other localities . . . While there were undoubtedly evidences of hysteria, bigotry, and intolerance, it seems evident that the authorities here, and a large part of the population, attempted to be not only fair but generous to the alien.

The relative benign treatment of German-speaking Rochestarians described by Black and Naylor is corroborated in Maurice Isserman’s 1977 Rochester History essay “Inheritance Lost: Socialism in Rochester, 1917 – 1919”. Isserman says that not a single Rochestarian was prosecuted under the onerous Espionage Act meant to enforce patriotism and suppress dissent.


(left to right, top to bottom), East High School, including David Hochstein, Edmund Lyons Park East Rochester, Penfield Baptist Church (from Jim Memmott’s article that includes discussion of David Hochstein), University of Rochester Wilson Commons. [Image created by UR’s Rettner computer lab staff] see Remembering the fallen of the RCSD from America’s past wars

Furthermore, Isserman shows that Rochesterians were actively involved in the anti-war movement both before and even during the war.  Most notably, the famed Social Gospel theologian Walter Rauschenbusch led peace vigils right up to the Declaration of War on April 6th.

VLUU L100, M100 / Samsung L100, M100

First Presbyterian Church of Pittsford, 21 Church Street see Remembering the fallen of the RCSD from America’s past wars

More dramatically, even after April 6th, anti-war sentiment remained strong during the November 1917 elections for mayor and other local offices.  In those elections, the Socialist Party — under a peace banner — elected three constables, two alderman and two supervisors, while receiving 20% of the mayoral vote.  In Buffalo the Socialist votes for mayor tallied 30%. In historian Michael Kazin’s recent book, War Against War (2017), a study of the American anti-war movement from 1914-1918, Kazin cites the Rochester and Buffalo elections as a significant indication of war opposition.

Taken together — a large German-American population combined with an active anti-war socialism — it seems arguable that Rochestarians did not have a overweening appetite to celebrate a war that cost so much and gained so little.  Maybe we learned something in the twenty years from 1898 to 1918.

¹Rundel’s Local History & Genealogy Division librarian Brandon Fess says about the Austrian cannon:

The Austrian cannon, however, is something…different. It was a friendly gesture to Rochester from Italy, certainly. However, it was still a trophy taken by the Italians, though most likely as post-war reparations (over a thousand guns of that model were handed over to Italy by Austria, along with thousands of other artillery pieces). Italy had a particularly tortured experience of the war, and propaganda aimed at Italian emigrants in the US and elsewhere was widely used to build international support for Italy — and to try to lure emigrants home to join the army. As home to a large Italian emigrant population, I am quite sure that the Austrian cannon was more than just a gesture of friendship  — it was also a signal to Italian-Americans of Italy’s might and military success in the war. The monument with a sole meaning is rare; layers of meaning and symbolism can be present even in such a concrete and seemingly simple monument as a lone cannon.


Irondequoit, NY. The cannon was acquired by Irondequoit American Legion Post 134. [Photos: Dean Tucker, 12/16/18]

To Commemorate the Memory of Ira J. Jacobson who took part in the following engagements of The World War 1917 - 1918 Dickebush Sector, Belgium East Poperinge Line, Hindenburg Line, LaSalle River, Jonc Demer Ridge, Vurstraat Ride, St. Maurice River and was killed in action at Bandiville Farm, October 17, 1918 and the following veterans of World War members of Ira J. Jacobson Post who have departed to the great beyond Ira Jacobson Light in memoriam John Egan 1969

Intersection of Lake Avenue and River Street, Rochester, NY. Erected 1931 by Ira J. Jacobson Post No. 474, American Legion. To Commemorate the Memory of
Ira J. Jacobson
who took part in the following engagements of
The World War 1917 – 1918
Dickebush Sector,Belgium East Poperinge
Line, Hindenburg Line, LaSalle River,
Jonc Demer Ridge, Vurstraat Ride,
St. Maurice River
and was killed in action at
Bandiville Farm, October 17, 1918
and the following veterans of World War
members of
Ira J. Jacobson Post
who have departed to the great beyond
Ira Jacobson Light
in memoriam
John Egan
1969 [Photo: David Kramer, 12/16/18]

UPDATES: SEE The Austrian cannon is back in Washington Square Park. And some Italian Rochester history. 

SEE Rochestarians in World War One and the One Hundredth Anniversary of Château-Thierry

When all was quiet on the western front on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918.


About The Author

Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


Like what you see on our site? We’d appreciate your support. Please donate today.

Featured Posts


%d bloggers like this: