The battlegrounds of World War I were hideous places. The trenches were wet and cold and filled with vermin. No Man's Land was littered with the breathless bodies of soldiers, abandoned equipment, and twisted wire. Gas clouds hung low, their worst victims destined for a slow and painful death. The burned out hollows of trees stood blackened against the scorched ground. Stone buildings crumbled into village streets, destroyed by firefight. Journals and letters home reveal landscapes of destruction and graffiti, the unmistakable sound of artillery shells slicing the air overhead, and the uncertainty of the next week, day, or hour.
More than 100 men from Groton entered the military for service during World War I.
Along with their friends George "Cedric" Moison and William Folkins, Laurence "Larry" Gay and Leroy E. Johnson joined the Army in the summer of 1917. They took the train from Groton to Boston to enlist and were placed in the 26th "Yankee Division" which was made up mostly of men from New England. Gay was assigned to Headquarters Company, 101st Field Artillery while Johnson ended up in Company B, 101st Engineer Battalion.
Both men grew up in Groton and graduated within several years of one another, one from Groton High School and one from Lawrence Academy. At the time they enlisted, both worked in town: Johnson at the Groton School and Gay on the family farm. Johnson, and the rest of the men in Company B, were sent to Camp Devens as it was being built in the summer of 1917. They were in charge of various construction and engineering projects at the camp including laying out roads and drainage ditches. Gay headed to a training camp in Boxford with the rest of the Yankee Division artillery regiments.
After training concluded, the friends suffered rough passage to Europe in the fall of 1917, days filled with rocky seas and unavoidable illness. Overseas in 1917 and 1918, both soldiers fought the same dreary homesickness and struggled through the same fierce fighting across the French landscape. Both wrote letters home, remaining hopeful in the face of unrelenting violence far from Groton. What set them apart in the end is that Johnson came home while Gay did not.
Laurence Gay's War Experience
On October 13, 1918, Sgt. Gay and four other men were sent to an observation post near the front line when they were thrown to the ground by the large explosion of a gas shell. Gay, in charge of the post, ordered the other men to the nearby first aid station while he lay where he fell for the next seven hours. Gay remained in the hospital in Vichy, France, until his death at age 21 on October 30 from heart failure, a direct result of the gassing. His nurse wrote a letter home to the Gay family telling of his courage and spirit of endurance and how even in his delirious moments he was always thinking of his home. He was even said to have once called out from his hospital bed: "We're winning, boys!"
Gay was buried in France, his grave marked by a white cross and adorned with pink roses and ferns. He remained there until 1921 when his body was transferred back to his hometown of Groton. On June 6, 1921, services were held at the Congregational Church with schools and businesses closed to honor him, the last Groton soldier lost in World War I. His name had already been given to Groton's American Legion Post #55 in 1919. The service was a town affair: children lined Hollis Street and held the American Flag, and an Honor Guard from Camp Devens marched at the head of the funeral procession. Before Taps sounded on the bugle Post Commander Daniel Needham heralded Gay as courageous, conscientious, and with great spirit of endurance.
Leroy Johnson Survived
Private Johnson spent the entire war slogging through the trenches with mud up to his knees and marching through devastated French villages. Johnson saw heavy action in the St. Mihiel, Marne, and Argonne offensives and was gassed in April 1918, an attack that left him with life-long respiratory problems. In July that year Johnson was camped in a barn at Chateau Thierry and, without warning, a shell explosion sent him crashing through the door to the ground outside. He spent time in a French hospital for a resulting leg injury.
Johnson was back in the trenches when word of the Armistice arrived. His commanding officer ordered them to stop fighting on that day, November 11, 1918, at 11:00 AM and Johnson recounted to his family that the noise of explosions, shots, and yells ended immediately and the resulting silence was deafening in its own way: a sudden end to months of panicked fighting and never-ending casualties. When he finally arrived back in Massachusetts and was discharged at Camp Devens, Johnson had no means of contacting his family so he walked over seven miles to his home in North Groton, surprising his mother who believed he was still in the hospital receiving medical attention for his injuries.
As with all significant journeys, literal and figurative, it's impossible to come home without souvenirs, memories, or scars; imprints so deep that they may fade, but never wholly disappear. Leroy "Roy" Johnson, Jr., remembers that his father spoke only about the war in a technical matter-of-fact way. Stories swirled about the dark side of his service in France, but he chose to share memories of the French people and culture that he was exposed to which made a lasting impression on him. Roy also remembers his father using his war experiences as teaching moments. He showed Roy how to shoot a rifle expertly and helped him build a machine gun nest in the sandbox for his toy soldiers. Johnson shared with his family what was practical and interesting, taking human emotion out of the stories to spare his loved ones the true burden of war that he himself carried. Of course, failing to acknowledge is far from forgetting, and Roy remembers hearing of the nightmares his father suffered for the remainder of his life.
At 100 years old, World War I seems old enough to forget, far enough removed by time and distance that it loses its brutal sting. Towns were rebuilt, landscapes grew back and flourished, and the survivors are all gone, no longer able to remind us of what they endured. It is entirely up to us, then, to pick up these memories of camaraderie, loss, destruction, and hope; and shoulder the weight -- heavy as it is -- to hand it off to those who will come next. Because no matter how much time passes, war never ends, not really.
Author Kara Fossey, GHS House Consultant to the Groton Historical Society, is also Executive Director of the Fort Devens Museum, which has hosted commemorative events throughout this 100th anniversary observance of the establishment of Camp Devens (later Fort Devens) and the US entry into WWI.