WWI: Don’t Be a Slacker!

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Reading Times,  October 2, 1918

It was an unseasonably warm, sunny day when Aaron Krick of Reading wandered along the railroad tracks outside of Dauberville on October 8, 1918.  At 65 degrees, it was a perfect day for a walk and Krick had no intention of breaking the law. Suddenly the young man was confronted by uniformed railway police. After being accused of trespassing and arrested, Krick was hauled before the Alderman. He was asked to produce his draft registration card, but acknowledged that he did not possess one. He did not know that the country was at war, he told the Alderman, and he had no intention of joining the army. Aaron Krick was a “slacker.”

When our country entered the Great War in April 1917, the U.S. Army was ill-prepared to wage war against Germany. President Wilson asked for an Army of 1,000,000 men, and at first, relied on volunteers to meet that quota. When the volunteer pool slowed well below the desired number of recruits, the Selective Service Act of 1917 was passed on May 8th that year. The Act required all able-bodied men between the ages of 21 and 30 to register for the draft. Nationally, the draft was a success. 2 million of the 4.8 million men in service came from the draft. However, the number of men who “dodged” the draft nationally was somewhere around 325,000.

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WWI Draft Cards, Berks History Center Museum Collection

The term slacker had its beginnings on a national level. One week after the United States entered the war, a column appeared in the New York Evening World, which described the many different slackers and how a slacker is “willing to die of old age for his country.” The article also spoke directly to the reader, stating that before you called someone out for being a slacker, you must first look at yourself and make sure you were not a slacker as well.

In the eyes of a nation at war, draft dodging was taken seriously. The dodgers were constantly sought by the Department of Justice, who were responsible for their prosecution. If, like Aaron Krick, a young man was of age and did not register for the draft, he was detained by the authorities. In the instance that a young man registered for the draft but did not report, they were sought by authorities and held for the actions of the Department of Justice. Such was the case with Pedro Gomenz and Eugene Berlanger, who evaded the call to the Fleetwood board by going to Reading. They were prosecuted and branded as slackers. If a man was rounded up as a slacker, his name was published and he was considered a traitor to the U. S. and a disgrace to the community.

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Reading Times,  December 16, 1918

The term slacker also applied to those with actions that were deemed unpatriotic. If a man missed work in a plant that was vital to the war effort, he too was deemed a slacker. If a fundraising drive was held and someone refused to contribute, as an employee of Carpenter Steel did during a Red Cross drive, they were subject to ridicule by coworkers. Slacker Day was proclaimed at Carpenter Steel where anyone who did not subscribe to the Red Cross drive was subjected to the wrath of his fellow coworkers. One man who refused to contribute was met at the door, pinned down, and had a yellow stripe painted on his back. When he made it back to his feet, he was blasted with a fire hose as he left the property. Two other men who did not contribute to the drive discovered a sign mounted at their station in the water department which said, “There are two slackers here.” They claimed they had contributed and ripped up the sign. Their coworkers then posted another sign with an American flag draped over it. The two slackers were forced to contribute twice as much to the Red Cross as they had claimed. Then their coworkers made both men kneel and kiss the flag. One did so willingly while the other man’s actions did not go over well. He was chased from the area while women from another department threw stones at him as he left the facility.

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Reading Times,  November 15 1918

In Reading, Mayor Edward Filbert worked to break up the “loafing ring” of industrial slackers. He instructed city detectives to round up all industrial slackers and force them to work or hand them a jail sentence. Movie theatres, such as the Lyric, 808-810 Penn St., The Queen, 410 N 11th St., and the Majestic, 108 Oley St., showed moving pictures about slackers. The patriotic fever that was strong in this community during the Great War would not stand for anyone who “slacked” behind in their duties to their country and community. For some branded as slackers, jail might have been preferable than the wrath they faced in the community.

As for Aaron Krick, the man who wasn’t registered for the draft in October 1918 and claimed that he didn’t know the country was at war, he wasn’t completely honest with the Alderman in Dauberville. In September 1917, Krick was arrested in Reading for…being a slacker! Krick’s actual residence was Mohnton but he moved to Reading to avoid the draft and cause confusion as to which precinct he was registered. Krick continued to be investigated by police as late as 1921, when he was arrested at 9th and Penn Sts. on a charge of suspicion. Police believed he was wanted for being a draft dodger.

Richard Polityka is a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center and project leader of the Berks History Center’s World War I project that commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Great War. 

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WWI & Berks Exhibit Opening at the Berks History Center

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The Berks History Center is pleased to announce the opening of a special temporary exhibit, World War I & Berkson November 10, 2017 from 5:00-7:30PM at the Berks History Center, located at 940 Centre Ave. Reading, PA 19601.

The exhibit is part of the World War I & Berks project, a year-long commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of World War I that examines Berks County’s contributions to the Great War and the effects the war had on our local community. The World War I & Berks exhibit, located in the Berks History Center’s Palmer Gallery, tells how Reading and Berks County responded to the nation’s call to arms through a remarkable eagerness to serve and unwavering patriotism.

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Additional stories are being shared on the Berks History Center’s blog and social media throughout the year. The project will conclude with a County-wide celebration and a day of special programs at the Berks History Center on November 10, 2018 for the 100th Anniversary of Armistice Day.

The exhibit was curated by Richard Polityka, the World War I & BerksProject Leader and a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center. Dave Unger, another long-time volunteer, assisted Polityka. The World War I & Berks exhibit is a true labor of love for both volunteers, who dedicated countless hours to the project.

Polityka said, “Working on this exhibit has been an amazing learning experience. I enjoyed having the opportunity to explore the Berks History Center’s collections and was surprised to discover so many fascinating stories about what life was like for people in Berks County during the first World War.”
The Berks History Center invites you to participate in the grand opening of this special gallery exhibit as we kick off the year-long project. The gallery opening includes a reception from 5:00-7:30PM and a special announcement at 6:30PM. Time-period refreshments will be served. Admission is $7.00 for adults, $5.00 for seniors, and free to BHC members. Admission includes access to all museum exhibits.

Home Over There: The Role of the YMCA & YWCA in the Great War

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WWI YWCA Poster from the BHC Museum Collection

When America entered the Great War in 1917, it needed to draft, train and mobilize an army capable of waging war against Germany. Once recruited and trained, the troops arrived in France as early as June 1917 and, in earnest, by October 1917. At home, families and loved ones were deeply concerned for the well-being of the sons and brothers of America. Thankfully, the Young Men’s Christian Association, or better known as the YMCA, tended to the soldiers overseas, giving both peace of mind to families at home and comfort to soldiers abroad.

The YMCA’s involvement in the Great War did not begin with the American entry into the war. Three years prior to the start of WWI, the YMCA entertained and provided for British, Canadian and Australian soldiers in England and other fighting fronts. Viscount Bryce, former British Ambassador to the United States, wrote to E. C. Carter, secretary for France and England of the YMCA, commending their work.

“I can truly say”, Bryce writes in his letter, “that I have heard from every quarter, including many naval and military authorities, the warmest acknowledgement and excellent work done by the Young Men’s Christian Association during these three terrible years of war. Many plans have been devised, many methods successfully employed, to provide for their benefit comforts, recreation, literature of the right sorts and many other wholesome influences. I believe that the American Association which will have the benefit from our experiences, which will be worked with true American energy, and which may command larger funds than we had, may render the greatest possible services in France to those American soldiers who Britain and France rejoice to welcome as their allies in this fight for freedom and right”. This statement appeared in the Reading Times on August 4, 1917. Clearly, American involvement in the YMCA effort was as welcome to the conflict as the military strength that the United States offered to the allies.

The YMCA gave soldiers a place where they could get away from the harsh realities of the war. They organized canteens at the front lines in France. The huts or tents at the front lines were run by “Secretaries,” who provided writing materials, stock libraries, and sometimes, a gramophone and records. Nearly 1500 entertainers, singers, dancers and musicians met with troops in their off hours.

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Dances were organized in Paris and London. The YMCA had its own letterhead as volunteers helped soldiers write letters home. The organization produced pamphlets, raised money back home and provided religious activities. General John Pershing endorsed the YMCA on a popular poster (pictured above): “I have (had) opportunity to observe its operations, measure the quality of its personnel, and mark its beneficial influence upon our troops and I wish to unreservedly commend its work for the Army”.

At home, the YMCA offered free membership to guardsmen that guarded the train lines in the Reading area when the United States entered the war. At the outset of the war, the Lebanon Valley Bridge and the Peacocks Bridge were guarded against sabotage. Jerry H. Edwards, the secretary of the Reading YMCA left for Egypt in December 1916. When he left there were no indications that America would join the war. When he arrived at the Franklin Street Station in November 1917, he stated to friends who greeted him that he was “glad America came into the war”. Dressed in an army trench coat, he noted, “When I got off of my boat yesterday and walked up the street I looked at the flags and demonstrations of patriotism on every side. It was a revelation to me. It was a different America from the one I left”. The Reading Times reported Edwards was soon to leave for Dayton Ohio where he was to deliver a lecture at their city’s YMCA on the conditions of the war in Europe. The lecture supported a $35,000,000 national campaign to extend the work of the YMCA. He reported that YMCA’s evening concerts attracted 4,000 soldiers on a regular basis. He was in charge of the YMCA station in Cairo, Egypt, and ran a service hut in France for American troops.

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WWI YWCA Poster from the BHC Museum Collection

The Young Women’s Christian Association, or the YWCA, aimed to support the war efforts as well. During WWI, the YWCA was responsible for forming work councils, operating hostess houses on camp grounds as well as manufacturing areas. Their mission was to do its share for men in uniform, with its main purpose to meet the needs of women and girls, including the wives and families of service men, nurses and employees at military posts, workers in war industries, and others directly affected by the emergency needs of the nation. The local YWCA formed a patriotic league for its members and concentrated on food conservation and Red Cross work. The Reading Times reported the members took the following pledge: “Realizing my nations need. I will express my patriotism by doing to the best of my ability whatever work I have to do. I will be dignified, thoughtful of the welfare of others, including women of other nations, careful to keep such standards of living as shall make me a good citizen. I will render whatever concrete service I can at this time to my country”. Throughout the Great War, the YMCA and YWCA made significant and critical contributions to the war effort.

Richard Polityka is a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center and project leader of the Berks History Center’s World War I project that commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Great War. 

Patriotic Fever in Berks County during the Great War

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When the Great War broke out in the Summer of 1914 the seeds of patriotic fever were planted in the citizens of the United States. Originally, President Woodrow Wilson adopted a strict neutrality policy, declaring that the United States is “neutral in fact, as well as in name.” The issue of involvement was hotly debated in the United States in the early stages of the War, especially between the isolationist and preparedness movements that were growing in the country.

During the period of 1914-1916, patriotic fever gained momentum as tales of the atrocities in Belgium spread. Then came the sinking of the British liner Lusitania, which claimed 128 American lives and fueled the fire of a growing anti-German sentiment. This was an era when the concept of Americanism – what is means to be an American – was energetically courted and hotly contested. This wave of fever found its way to Berks County as it did everywhere in the nation. As propaganda posters (pictured above) and Tin Pan Alley composers did their part to energize this movement nationally, Reading and Berks County felt the effects and responded with national pride.

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Mary Archer, chairman of the Belgium Relief Committee in Berks County, worked tirelessly to ensure food was shipped to the starving Belgians. A full-page advertisement in the Reading Times detailed what the money raised could buy to aid in the relief effort.  The ad from November 12, 1914 is rich in dialect informing its readers the time to feed starving women and children is now, and the cargo ship is waiting in Philadelphia for your reply! By April 1917, Reading led the nation in the relief effort, giving 50 cents per capita, which was 5 times more than the national average. The Reading Patriotic Committee was formed, which coordinated the patriotic functions in the area. Their efforts to stoke the fires of patriotism really blossomed when the United States entered the war. Even a story I worked on for the Historical Review earlier this year showed the patriotic fever. The spring issue of the Review tells the story of a large Tiller sled of the era by the name of “Old Glory.”

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When the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, and no sooner than George M Cohan wrote the song “Over There”, the Reading Patriotic Committee had a parade organized to be held April 14, 1917, to showcase the City’s patriotic pride. The parade had 30,000 participants, with the parade column 4 miles long. There were 53 bands participating in this event, which took 2-1/2 hours to completely pass any one point. The parade started at 9th and Windsor Streets, winding its way through the city and ending at 6th and Oley Streets. Jonathan Mould had the distinguished honor of appearing in the parade twice, marching the route entirely with the Reading Planning Commission in the first column. Mould then went downtown to watch the parade, to see the Reading Rotary Club with a strong contingent marching. Being an enthusiastic Rotarian himself, Mould joined the column at  4th and Elm Streets to rousing cheers by the members of the club. The Hippodrome filmed the pageant with the motion picture to be shown in conjunction with its vaudeville acts later in the week.

There was an incident of interest that occurred during the parade on Penn St. As a recruiting officer was driving in the parade at a point on Penn St., a young man made an insulting remark about the service. The officer stopped his vehicle, and proceeded to give the young man a lecture he was not likely to forget. The offender said nothing, fearing a beating from those who heard his insulting remark. The officer told him that enlisting would make a good citizen out of him. The draft was met enthusiastically on the local level. According to the Reading News-Times, “Practically every man expressed a willingness to go to war when the time came. Volunteering for service rather than being drafted appeared to meet with more favor.” The American Red Cross recruited volunteers from the Reading Hospital Nursing School to serve at home and abroad.

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“To the Tannery” An Effigy (stuffed costume) of Kaiser hung in downtown Reading, PA c. 1915 from the Berks History Center Research Library Collection

As America moved forward in the Great War, the local swell of patriotic pride did not diminish. National guardsmen were stationed at strategic points along both the Philadelphia & Reading and Pennsylvania Railroad lines for fear of sabotage. The strong influence of Germanic descent in the area brought an awareness of who was loyal to our country and who harbored loyalties to the Kaiser.

The Reading Defense Committee was organized, headed by  H.J. Hayden, with Mary Archer in charge of agricultural work. Patriotism was on display in Berks.  Scenes such as 1200 people singing patriotic songs to the music of the Ringgold Band at Reading Saddle Manufacturing at 316-322 Maple Street, and the Liberty Committee offering you to “Pack All Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag” and come to Lauer’s Park for a patriotic sing along were all too common.

Richard Polityka is a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center and project leader of the Berks History Center’s World War I project that commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Great War. 

Divergent Departures – Company A and Company I Leave for the Great War in August 1917

 

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The story of Company A and Company I of Reading, Pennsylvania is a story that can easily become confused. Company I was organized in Reading in June of 1898 during the Spanish-American War.

During the Mexican Border crisis in 1916, the United States was tasked with capturing or killing Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa after he attacked the border town of Columbus, New Mexico. Company I was part of the 117,000 National Guardsmen that were stationed along the Mexican–U.S. border. It was during this exercise that the Zimmerman telegram was intercepted. The interception alerted the U.S. government that Germany had encouraged Mexico to enter WWI on the side of the Central Powers, which eventually led the United States to enter the war against Germany.

Company A was part of the 4th Pennsylvania Infantry division, which had its roots in Company I. After being detached from the 4th Pennsylvania Infantry, Company I remained intact and established a machine gun company for the First Composite National Guard. Both Companies were stationed at the Armory on 325 Walnut St.

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Reading Times announcing the transfer of Captains Kestner & Miller

In an effort to make commanding officers strangers to the men they led, Captain Edward V. Kestner (originally Company A) and Captain Charles L. Miller (originally Company I) were ordered to exchange commands of their companies. Company A was to leave first, embarking on a journey to Camp Hancock in Augusta, Georgia to prepare the camp for the rest of the regiment. Company I was next to leave with its destination Mineola on Long Island, the mobilization point for 26 states that would compose the division heading to France.

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Company A left Reading on August 20th 1917 to the grandest show of patriotism Reading had ever seen. A crowd estimated at 40,000 people lined the parade route as an escort marched from the Chamber of Commerce to the Armory, to meet the departing soldiers.  The escort consisted of mounted policemen, Mayor Filbert, City Councilmen,  The Rotary Club, the Chamber of Commerce, members of the Reading Orioles and their visiting Orioles from Buffalo NY, the citizens patriotic committee and the Ringgold Band. Once they made their way to the Armory, the crowd was joined by Company I, who acted as escort for the departing Company A. The parade route ran up Walnut Street to 4th Street, down 4th Street to Penn Street, up Penn Street to 6th Street, and finally out 6th Street to the Outer Station. Thousands of American flags waved. Just about everyone had a flag to show their support.

The parade was met by the Reading Firefighters with all their apparatus on Penn Street. Once the parade emerged on Penn, the firemen sounded their sirens and rang their bells to the roaring cheers of the crowd. The square was a massive blanket of cheering with the farewell salute continuing until the parade left the square and made its way north on 6th Street. As a permanent daily reminder of the departure of Reading’s first troops for service in the war, an immense 24 foot flag was hung in the main dining room of the Mansion House on this day.  Mansion House manager, Anson Christ said, “The flag will stay there until the boys come back home again for we know they will uphold the flag wherever they may be and we will be proud of them and thinking of them every day they are absent from Reading.” The raising of the flag in such a position followed a precedent at the Mansion House that dates back to the Civil War when a similar gesture was made in honor of the First Defenders in 1861.

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Once at the Outer Station, the crowd from the parade swelled to the point where the station was overrun with a sea of humanity. The overflow crowd climbed roofs and boxcars to get their last glimpse of Company A. Officials kept the platform clear as the soldiers broke rank to spend their last minutes in town with loved ones. The scene as reported in the Reading Eagle was touching: mothers warmly embracing their sons as their fathers stood trying to conceal the pride that swelled inside them. Sweethearts smiling through tears as they took leave of their lover soldiers, pressing keepsakes into their hands to remind them that someone was home waiting for them. The train left the Outer Station at 4:15pm and headed to Augusta, Georgia.

Following the grand send off for Company A, Captain Kestner and Company I departed Reading on August 251917 in total obscurity. The time of departure was never officially made public and the newspapers asked citizens to refrain from coming to see the soldiers depart. The company did not depart from the Outer Station as Company A did. They left on four Philadelphia & Reading Railroad cars that were located close to the Armory on North 3rd Street. The soldiers of Company I did not know what specific time they were leaving until Captain Kestner informed them at noon to say their goodbyes to their parents and loved ones. The company would leave Reading by 2:30pm. At the designated time, the company was called to order for final inspection by Captain Kestner. Then they marched out in rows of four, taking a short hike to the waiting rail cars on North 3rd street.  By the time the afternoon Reading Eagle was delivered, the soldiers of Company I were headed on their 8 hour journey to Mineola, NY.

Article written & researched by Richard Polityka

Richard Polityka is a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center and project leader of the Berks History Center’s World War I project that commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Great War. 

The First to Answer the Call in the Great War – American Doctors and Nurses

When the United States entered the Great War on April 6, 1917, the nation was hardly prepared to wage war against Germany, the main force on the Western Front from the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria). The US Army was small and after the Selective Service Act of 1917, it drafted 2.8 million men into the service. The men drafted had to be trained before being mobilized to Europe, which didn’t begin to make its impact in Europe until the fall of 1917.

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WWI Red Cross Recruitment Campaign Poster from the Berks History Center Museum Collection

The American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) began arriving in France in June of 1917. The first Americans to arrive in Europe to aid the Allies were not our military troops – it was the Doctors and the nurses of the American Red Cross. The doctors and nurses of the American Red Cross began their humanitarian mission as early as 1914 aboard a donated cruise ship painted white with a red cross that was recognized as a “Mercy Ship”.  One Reading nurse, Emma B. Loose of 1442 Spruce Street, made the initial journey.

John Wanamaker donated 2,000 tons of food and clothing that left Philadelphia on the mercy ship “Thelma.” The Reading Times article described Wanamaker “cheering like a schoolboy” at the dock as the “Thelma” left port. By September 1915, public sentiment against the war closed the American hospitals, recalling the personnel back to the States. Some chose to remain and sign on with the countries they supported while in Europe. Once America entered the war, doctors and nurses were once again recalled to the battlefront.

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Nurses from Reading arrived in Great Britain and France in May of 1917. Like the AEF, their impact was immediate and highly appreciated by the French and British. Carrie Albright of Reading wrote in a letter to her mother Mrs. Alfred S. Albright,  of 635 Pear St., received on June 28, 1917 that she did not know her destination and could not reveal her location in subsequent letters for security purposes. Other Reading girls in Carrie’s unit Red Cross #10 were Misses Florence Burkey, Eva Gerhard and Emily Holmes. Three other Reading girls sailed in late June with Army base hospital 34. They were Mary L. Bonawitz, 615 Church St, Amanda I. Heistand and Mary K. Lotz. Misses Bonawitz and Heistand graduated from the Episcopal Hospital training school for nurses in Philadelphia.

Florence Burkey of 152 West Oley St. reported in a letter published in the Reading Eagle on July 10, 1917 of her 100 mile, 9 hour journey to her destination in France. She also reported that as a nurse, under English law, she was unable to give anesthetics to the patients. At the Reading Hospital back home, Florence was an anesthesiologist. On general duty, Florence worked very hard to the point of exhaustion on a daily basis. She was thankful for the opportunity to have close contact with the patients, describing them as brave and uncomplaining. She also described them as terribly wounded. It was her hope that the United States could stop the war so our soldiers can be spared from the horrible slaughter. Burkey served at base hospital #10 on night duty.

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WWI Red Cross War Fund Campaign Poster from the Berks History Center Museum Collection

The Red Cross did not see the trenches in the Great War, but they were not far from it. The immediate aid in the trenches was performed by the military medics in the field, who transported the wounded to the front line casualty clearing stations or forward units where the Red Cross took over. Once there, the casualties were prepared for transport to base hospitals in the rear. The clearing stations and base hospitals were subject to enemy air attacks, with nurses suffering over 200 casualties themselves during the course of the war, with most casualties coming from disease. According to the  “The Heroism of Reading & Berks County” published by the Reading Eagle, three Berks County nurses and one doctor died during the war. The casualties included: Nurse Eleanora Cassidy of 1045 N. 4th Street, Nurse Mary J. Scheirer of 1033 N 5th Street, Nurse Marie Hidell, and Dr. Ralph L. Hammond. All three passed on U.S. soil. The Red Cross nurses served in the Great War without rank or commission, something that changed by the next time the United states was involved in a world conflict.

Richard Polityka is a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center and project leader of the Berks History Center’s World War I project that commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Great War. 

 

WWI: Life in the Trenches for the Berks County Boys

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US Food Adminstration Poster, WWI; BHC Museum Collection

Despite a lack of preparedness, the United States officially entered the Great War in April of 1917, providing support to our allies with troops which were desperately needed at the front lines.

The American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), led by General Pershing, desperately needed training before they were deployed to the battlefields of France.  The first wave of the AEF arrived in France by June of 1917, with their first involvement in the conflict occurring late in October 1917.

The first two companies from Reading to answer the call of duty were Company A and Company I, who left the city in late August 1917 to be stationed in France.. However, this Reading contingent did not see France until December 1917 and did not make it to the trenches until March of 1918 as part of the 42 Division (Company I).

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Whatever training our boys received prior to embarking to France could have hardly prepared them for the horrors that trench warfare presented to the soldiers. The Berks History Center’s Museum collection helps to tell the story of their challenging experiences.  Pictured above, these artifacts were some of the basic necessities of life in the trenches including: a complete mess kit with the name “Marks” carved into each utensil and the lid, a gas mask in a canvas bag, a gas mask container, a complete shaving kit and a trench checkers kit. Looking at each item paints a picture of life fighting in the Great War.

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Reading Times, November 28, 1917.

The first Reading casualty in the Great War occurred on November 20th, when Charles S Rissmiller, of 1321 Moss Street, who served in the field artillery with the AEF in France under General Pershing, was killed when a shell exploded near his station. When news reached his mother Clara Rissmiller at her residence at 1240 Clover Street on November 27th, Mayor Edward H Filbert ordered all flags to be flown at half mast for ten days in honor of the city’s first casualty.

Richard Polityka is a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center and project leader of the Berks History Center’s World War I project that commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Great War.