100 years ago today, Cantigny Park's namesake battle brings America seriously into World War I
With its military museum and collection of tanks, Cantigny Park is one of the most appropriate places to observe Memorial Day.
The ceremonies on the grounds of the Wheaton campus will take on added meaning today as the First Division Museum pays special tribute to the soldiers who fought 100 years ago in the Battle of Cantigny during World War I.
If you've never been to the museum, there's a good chance you've never heard of the battle. But its centennial -- which also happens to fall on Memorial Day -- is an important milestone, and not just because the battle left a profound mark on Cantigny's benefactor, Col. Robert R. McCormick.
McCormick led an artillery unit in the attack, an experience that shaped him so much that he returned home and renamed his sprawling Wheaton estate after the French village (pronounced "can-TEE-nee") that American forces liberated from German occupation.
"To us, the centennial of that battle is a big deal no matter what," museum Executive Director Paul Herbert said. "But the battle is significant and worthy of our attention for other reasons."
The museum dedicated to the Army's oldest division reopened late last summer at 1S151 Winfield Road after extensive renovations. Updated exhibits show the human price of war through the stories of the soldiers who fought over the division's 101-year history.
"One of the themes here is 'our soldiers,' and what we mean by that is we want the visitors to develop empathy for soldiers," Herbert said. "We want them to recognize the fundamental humanity of soldiers. We want them to understand what soldiers go through, what they experience, what they sacrifice."
In keeping with that mission, the museum is marking the 100th anniversary of the battle by focusing on the men who died, the men who were wounded and the men who defied the expectations of German forces and even U.S. allies.
McCormick's mansion will host a re-enactment of the 1937 speech he delivered for the dedication of a 1st Division monument at Cantigny, France. Other re-enactors will read letters written by soldiers and interact with visitors in an encampment with historic vehicles. Kids also can build and paint helmets inspired by the kind worn by "doughboys."
"We will do a variety of things to make that connection between the public and these soldiers who are no longer here to tell their own stories," Herbert said.
The battle was the first major American offensive in the Great War, and it also was the first major test of an Army division established just a year earlier in 1917.
"The French were worried that we were so inexperienced, so new, because they've been fighting since 1914," Herbert said. "We've been there a year. We've been rotating in and out of the Western Front mainly for training, but we've never been given an operation to do on our own."
America entered the fray after President Woodrow Wilson went before Congress to seek a declaration of war against Germany so the world would "be made safe for democracy."
"The first time that Americans put all the chips down, put the lives of their soldiers on the line for that principle, was at the Battle of Cantigny," Herbert said.
A poignant display of red poppies will honor the American lives lost in World War I near the entrance to the museum's "First in War" gallery. U.S. troops suffered more than 300,000 casualties -- soldiers that were killed, wounded, missing or died of disease -- in the last months of the war.
A total of 2,000 hand-assembled poppies will fill the gallery, representing the "2,000 American soldiers that were killed or wounded every single day from the Battle of Cantigny through the end of World War I," said Jackie Gillaspie, the museum's volunteer and program facilitator.
The American Legion provided the petals and leaves, and museum historians assembled the poppies with the help of Scout groups, students and park members.
"We have put hours and hours and hours of work into this, and we would never have finished without all of the people who volunteered from the community," Gillaspie said.
Gillaspie called it an honor to play a role in the centennial observance as the great-granddaughter of a World War I veteran injured in the Battle of Cantigny.
"I wish more of my family members were alive to see it and see the legacy behind it," she said.