Robert Remington looked much younger than his 17 years when he joined the U.S. Army at Yale Field on April 23, 1917, less than three weeks after the United States entered World War I.
He came from a poor Hamden, Conn., family, one of 15 brothers and sisters. Robert was assigned to the 102nd Infantry Regiment of the 26th Yankee Division and sailed to France in October. He arrived in Seicheprey late that year, expecting to adjust slowly to modern warfare.
Remington, still a teenager, was fatally wounded on April 20 in the first major American engagement of the war.
His papers – photographs, a French phrase book for soldiers, drill regulations — passed on to his niece, Bernice McNeil, of North Haven, Conn. For years she thought about what to do with them. She didn’t want them put in a box and forgotten. In September 2016 she saw an ad in the local paper that said the North Haven Historical Society and the Connecticut State Library wanted old photos and keepsakes from World War I.
And so the photo of baby-faced Pvt. Robert Remington became part of the most ambitious effort in the United States to preserve memorabilia from World War I, called “Remembering World War I.” Since 2014, the Connecticut State Library has collected World War I-related items at special events throughout the state. They are stored in computer files, archived and made available online for future generations. The next event is May 24, 2017, at the New Haven Museum. The project will continue through 2018.
On a cold, rainy October night, Howard Swanson came to the first “Remembering World War I” event with two boxes. He was in his 80s, and he wanted to donate the keepsakes of his uncle, Jacob Bernasconi. Swanson was the first person to donate to the project.
Christine Pittsley, the project’s program manager, said she was blown away when she opened the boxes back at her office. Bernasconi was injured at the Battle of Chateau-Thierry in 1918. The doctors didn’t think he’d survive his wounds, and shipped his personal effects box home to his fiancé. It contained the possessions he had in the trenches, including his operators license, shaving kit, flashlight, a Red Cross comfort kit bag and his fiance’s baby shoes – which he held onto for luck.
Bernasconi survived, married his fiancé when he returned home and walked with a limp for the rest of his life. He later had an operation during which the doctors removed shrapnel from his hip.
“We have it, wrapped in gauze,” said Pittsley. “A lot of guys saved this stuff. The war was a life-changing experience.”
Pittsley said the project has collected unbelievable stories from around the country.
A German private, Emil Hoffman, was captured during the war by Merritt Learned of Meriden, Conn. The two kept in touch after the war. In a letter to Learned in the 1930s, Hoffman expressed gratitude to “our fuhrer Adolf Hitler. He has given us all jobs.”
“I always think we’re never going to get a story better than the last and then we get one with an equally big wow factor,” Pittsley said.
Sometimes people bring in a photo of a family member and a war anecdote. The Connecticut State Library, which is also the repository for the state’s war records, can sometimes fill in more details from its own collection.
One woman, Pittsley said, brought in a picture of Alice I. Swan, her grandmother and founder of the Connecticut chapter of Gold Star Mothers. Her son, Pfc. Francis G. Swan, was killed in a gun explosion in the Argonne Forest on October 23, 1918. His body was never recovered.
The Library showed her a picture of her uncle Francis Swan, which she had never seen. It also showed her a four-page questionnaire about Francis Swan’s military record. (Click here to find out more about the Connecticut State Library’s World War I resources.)
“It’s what makes this so cool,” said Pittsley.
The project should get a boost next year with the release of the film about Sgt. Stubby, a Staffordshire terrier mix who fought alongside the Yankee Division in the battlefields of France. The Connecticut State Library has Sgt. Stubby’s records, as well.
At 4 a.m. on April 20, German artillery began bombarding the 102nd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army in Seicheprey, France. The Americans were outgunned five to one. Storm troopers swept into the town, followed by thousands of German troops. They overran the American machine guns, set off explosions, sprayed lethal gas and thrust bayonets at the American soldiers. Robert Remington caught a German bayonet in the stomach.
Remington lingered for 10 days, then died on May 1, shortly before his 19th birthday. It was the first major U.S. engagement of the war.
His hometown put his name on the rotunda in the Hamden Town Hall and on the veterans’ monument in front of the school. His name is on his gravestone in Hamden’s Centerville Cemetery. Remington Street is named after him.
Now his photos are on display in the rotunda of the New Haven Museum. To see the images of the smiling teenager is to grasp all the things he lost out on, said Bernice McNeil.
“He was just young and innocent,” she said. ‘To lose your life like that, you don’t want to lose them at any age.”
The preservation continues on Wednesday, May 24, 2017, from 3 to 7 p.m., as Connecticut residents are invited to bring their WWI photos, letters, medals and mementos to the New Haven Museum (NHM) for scanning, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the U.S. entry into the “Great War.” The free event has been made possible in part by the Connecticut State Library, and a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.