The pride of Pittsfield

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It cost no more than a quarter to go to the movies in Pittsfield back then. A South Street gas company was selling "modern" gaslights designed to halt "the coal waste." Then, there was "Smocko," a tobacco-free cigarette billed as an "influenza germkiller."

But the big international news on Nov. 11, 1918?

World War I had finally come to an end after four years of struggle. That was 90 years ago today.

The German government accepted the armistice terms set forth by the Allied Forces, and the pact went into effect at 11 a.m. in Western Europe — or 6 a.m. on the East Coast.

In Pittsfield, Mayor W.C. Moulton immediately declared the day — Nov. 11, 1918 — to be a public holiday, asked all businesses to close, and shut down the city's schools. The day would become known as Armistice Day — marking the end of World War I, and later as Veterans Day when World War II ended.

Moulton also announced the formation of a "general parade" — the forerunner of today's Veterans Day Parade that will feature Gov. Deval L. Patrick. The parade was scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. By all accounts, it was a spontaneous affair.

"Lack of time will prevent its formal organization," Moulton declared in his proclamation, which was published on the morning of Nov. 11 in the Berkshire Evening Eagle, "but everybody is invited to join."

Moulton urged any bands or drum corps that were available "to join in line," and urged the general citizenry "to carry flags and bring along any noise-making devices available."

Over in Springfield, 6-year-old George Champoux was playing in his backyard.

"All of a sudden, I heard all banging of things," said Champoux, 96, who now lives in Lee. "Coming down the street were a mixed gang of people, women and boys. They were banging on wash tubs — anything to make noise."

An evening celebration was also scheduled for a Pittsfield park at 8 p.m. The emotion was so great, that both the parade and the celebration were repeated the next day.

"Pittsfield citizens couldn't resist the temptation to take another day in which to express their joy," a headline from The Eagle stated.

There are no Berkshire County World War I veterans alive to remind us of what took place. But according to retired Lt. Col. Gregor Young of Pittsfield, the senior vice commander of American Legion Post 68 in Pittsfield, 3,000 men in the greater Pittsfield area served in "The Great War" and 88 of them died.

Their names are inscribed on the city's Veterans Memorial off South Street, which was erected in 1926, and is currently in need of repair.

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Young, who served in Korea, had three family members fight in World War I.

His uncle, Michael Horrigan, who later became a Pittsfield police officer, served in France, and participated in the battles in the Meuse-Argonne region.

"He was gassed," Young said. "In those days, they didn't even have gas masks. ... A lot of the boys who came back, I think that's what helped kill them.

"It was a tough, tough war," Young added.

Charles White Whittlesey of Pittsfield, who graduated from Williams College in 1905, received the Congressional Medal of Honor and the French Croix de Guerre for his actions in the Argonne Forest in October 1918.

A major in the Army's 77th Division, Whittlesey was in charge of a battalion of 554 soldiers that ended up being cut off from their comrades.

Separated from their supply lines and pinned down by the German Army, Whittlesey's troops spent the next few days without food or water. The men held out for four days.

On the fifth day, the Germans sent a blindfolded American POW with a white flag and a note asking them to surrender.

Whittlesey allegedly told the blindfolded soldier to "go to hell," — a statement that he later denied. (Whittlesey's version is that he told the captured soldier to "go to your post.")

The next day, the Allied Forces broke through and rescued his men.

Newspaper correspondents, enamored with the events, dubbed Whittlesey's men "The Lost Battalion."

Whittlesey, who was promoted on the battlefield to Lieutenant Colonel, committed suicide three years after the war ended. According to The New York Times, Whittlesey jumped off a steamship in November 1921 while traveling from New York to Havana. He was 37 years old.

His body was never found.

To reach Tony Dobrowolski: tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com, (413) 496-6224.


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