Sunday, Nov. 11 marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I — “the war to end all wars,” as it was then idealistically called.
The global war originated in Europe in July 1914 and was entered into by the United States with a declaration of war on Germany by Congress on April 6, 1917. The war officially ended at 11 a.m. Paris time on Nov. 11, 1918, pursuant to an agreement — known as the armistice — signed by Germany, the Allied countries and the U.S. earlier that morning.
The war claimed the lives of an estimated 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians. The war is also considered a contributing factor in the 1918 influenza pandemic, which caused 50 million to 100 million deaths worldwide — including U.S. soldiers in camps both home and abroad.
Nine Riverhead Town residents in military service died during World War I: Everett Benjamin, who died of influenza while at an aviation camp in Texas; George L. Tuthill; Cornelius Keenan; Charles Chituk; Anton Zakas; Clifford Bess; John H. Haupt; Joseph Bonczyk; and Van Rensselaer Skidmore, the first man from Riverhead to die in the war, for whom the Riverhead Veterans of Foreign Wars post is named.
Three hundred men from all walks of life answered their nation’s call to battle. Hundreds more registered for the draft. One of the first three Riverhead men drafted was town clerk Joseph W. Kratoville.
The entire town mobilized for the war effort, purchasing war savings certificates to help fund the military effort and working overtime — even plowing fields by searchlight at night — to grow extra crops to feed the troops. Prison labor was used in the fields. The sheriff appointed more than 1,500 special deputies to act as an organized home guard.
The local newspapers of the time provided details of draft numbers and exemptions, send-offs to Camp Upton, and even letters home from the front.
Anton McKavish, a young farmer from Baiting Hollow, wrote to his former employer back home, M.C. Linnen. He was severely wounded in action in France during August 1918, according to a report in the County Review. He wrote from France, where he was recuperating in the home of an elderly widow in the countryside.
“I think I will be back to help you on the farm pretty soon. Of course, you see the papers and know how the Germans are being driven back with great losses,” he wrote. “We have passed through a large number of mined French towns, most of them all shot to pieces. Some of them haven’t a whole house left and there are no living things except rats,” McKavish wrote.
“Remember me to all the folks, especially to all the pretty girls in Calverton, and to Tommy and Walter.”
Sgt. William Solar wrote to his parents from France in August 1918. “In the place where we are now we are kept busy ducking shells all day long and we got a great deal of gas, but our company has been very lucky so far and I hope our good luck will continue,” Solar wrote. “I would like to tell you about the front on which we are now located, but we are not permitted to give that information.” The young sergeant was homesick, telling his parents how he was thinking about the Riverhead Fair that would be held in September. “It makes me feel that I’m going to miss another good time,” he wrote.
“I would rather be hunting ducks than hunting Germans, so I pray to God that the war will come to an end this winter,” Solar wrote.
Solar’s prayers were answered with the signing of the armistice on Nov. 11.
When word of the truce arrived, Riverhead residents got together that very day to plan a victory celebration. They met in the directors’ room of the Suffolk County National Bank and planned “an elaborate celebration” to be held the following week, with two big parades, a rally, prayer services and a victory ball.
The County Review newspaper reported that more than 5,000 people attended the celebration, which it described as “over the top.”
A huge Fourth of July celebration the following summer honored the town’s soldiers and sailors with a parade, ceremonies on the fair grounds and a block party on Griffing Avenue. Brig. Gen. Evan Johnson, former commander of the 77th division, presented medals to the veterans and to the families of the town’s deceased soldiers.
The town board had a monument built by J.W. Friske Iron Co. — “a handsome bronze memorial tablet containing the names of service men from Riverhead” — mounted on a granite block. The town intended to dedicate the monument on the first Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1919, but it wasn’t ready in time. The monument was placed on the northwest corner of Griffing Avenue and West Main Street, in front of the original location of the Suffolk County Historical Society. A dedication ceremony was held on Memorial Day 1920. Col. Theodore Roosevelt, son of the U.S. president, was the keynote speaker at the dedication ceremony. The monument was later moved to its present location, at the corner of Court and West Main streets. It is the site of Riverhead’s Veterans Day and Memorial Day ceremonies each year, organized by the Riverhead Combined Veterans Committee.
The Veterans Day ceremony takes place Sunday, Nov. 11 at 11 a.m., marking the signing of the armistice a century ago.