A Block Island doughboy lost in France, remembered on Center Road

Mon, 02/25/2008 - 6:00am
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For many, World War I — or the “Great War” — brings back memories of high school history teachers droning on about the first modern war to utilize tanks and fighter planes. My first real connection with the Great War was on a visit to the Somme battlefield in France on the 82nd anniversary of the start of that battle. The tour commenced on the morning of July 1, 1998, at a place today called Lochnager Crater.

Located on high ground overlooking the British trenches, this was the strongest German position at the Somme. British forces, with the help of Welsh miners, placed nearly 60,000 pounds of explosives under this position, which still scars the peaceful French countryside. The resulting explosion was the loudest manmade noise up to that point in history. Airmen flying nearby reported seeing earth catapulted over a mile into the sky.

However horrible this scene was for the German troops, it paled in comparison to the suffering of the British and French during an assault at the Somme along an 18-mile front. The number of British soldiers lost on this single day reads to the modern reader like a typo. July 16, 1916, represented the biggest loss of troops in British history, with more than 57,000 causalities, 19,000 of whom died while attempting to traverse no-man’s-land. Statistics like this make one realize the truth that Europe lost an entire generation of men in the Great War.

Block Island involvement

Two years later the European forces continued in the bloody stalemate in France along the Western Front. But two major differences drastically affected the outcome of the battles of 1918. Both of these would produce implications that resonated throughout the 20th century. First, the Russian Empire collapsed and the nascent Soviet Union sued for peace. As a result, one million Germans battling in the Eastern front against the Russians now turned west to finish off the British and French forces.

But the United States — a nation that historically shied away from foreign entanglements — shed its isolationism by joining the Allies in France. This American Expeditionary Force included Milton L. Mitchell from Block Island, a private in Company B, 328th Infantry, 82nd Division.

Mitchell’s unit sailed for France May 1, 1918. The first assignments centered on defensive actions in Lorraine. His unit, though, was fated to serve in the famed battle at the Argonne Forest. On the afternoon of September 26, 1918, the Americans moved toward the German position behind a rolling barrage of artillery. Over the next two weeks these Americans experienced fierce combat, the worst for the U.S. Army since the Civil War.

Toward the end of the battle of Argonne Forest, Mitchell’s captain was wounded. Mitchell took his place in the unit and later was wounded, on October 14. The following day he succumbed to his wounds and was buried in the American Cemetery at Villers-Bancourt. In 1921 Mitchell’s remains were brought to the United States and re-interred in the Island Cemetery.

Block Island remembers

At Bridgegate Square sits the World War I memorial listing those island residents that served, erected on land donated by Winfield Scott Dodge Sr. A second memorial exists: a window dedicated to the memory of Milton L. Mitchell that stands inside the building where he married Myrtle L. Dodge, the Center Methodist Church.

Today this Center Road building has been respectfully transformed into a private residence by Shirley Kessler. This past weekend I viewed the window for the first time with Milton’s nephew, Adrian Mitchell, whom he never met. Walking into the former church, Adrian said he attended Sunday school classes there before the church closed. He had not been inside the building since its conversion.

Viewing the window I thought of the four sons of Adrian and Ophelia Mitchell — Adolphus, Ernest, Adrian and Milton. I thought of the sense of loss these brothers felt, and the need for Milton to be remembered. This window represented one family’s attempt not to forget their beloved member, and in the end proves more powerful than all the sad statistics of the 10 million servicemen killed in “the war to end all wars.”

No national memorial

No monument stands on the mall in Washington, D.C., for the 4.7 million U.S. servicemen that served, and the 116,516 killed, in World War I. But Milton L. Mitchell’s name is etched in marble in Washington. Before the war, he worked at the island weather station, at the time organized under the Department of Agriculture. Mitchell’s name is listed with 68 other department employees killed during the war. Their names are flanked by a life-size soldier and sailor carved from marble guarding these names of honor.