Richard (Rick) Brooks told the story of one local farm boy’s WWI experience at the January program of the Town of Lloyd Historical Preservation Society, held recently in the Vineyard Commons Meeting Room/Theater in Highland. While he didn’t sugarcoat the horrific statistics of death and destruction, what made his presentation most remarkable was the very human picture he painted of the soldier himself, Andrew Sammen (1889-1970). Brooks put Sammen’s war experience into context by beginning the presentation with the soldier’s childhood and youth on a farm in Plattekill, then moving forward through a year in war-ravaged France, where one of his duties was to collect and bury the dead, and back again to Plattekill to live out the rest of his life where he had grown up.
What stuck with the audience was that this was a neighbor, who had definitely gone to hell and back and survived to enjoy the post-war peace for as long as it lasted.
Rick Brooks and his wife Patricia (Patti), co-owners of Brooks & Brooks Land Surveyors in Highland, live on a “corner” of what was once Patti’s grandparents’ farm, across the road from the Sammen family farm, where Andrew Sammen himself lived pre- and post-war. Although no Sammens live on the property now, the house built there by Andrew’s parents, still stands – empty, but - in the PowerPoint picture projected by Brooks – still emanating an aura of family history, encompassing love, fear, sadness, and joy.
Moving from the safety of Plattekill countryside to the battlefield of France, Brooks’ story had to take quite a turn. He related what he called the most conservative estimates of WWI casualties that he found in his research: 32 nations in the fight, 10 million service persons and 13 million civilians killed, and 20 million wounded. American statistics alone were staggering: Starting with a standing army of 200,000, thanks to the draft about 4.9 million Americans served in WWI. Over 2 million reached France, of whom about 1.4 million saw active duty and 153,000 died.
Contrast the vision of flat farmland growing fruits and vegetables, backed by tree-covered mountains with the war-torn France to which the young Andrew Sammen soon headed. Sammen’s idyllic rural youth came to an end soon after the United States declared war on Germany in 1917. Until then, the United States had been an important supplier to Great Britain and other allies but had not participated in battle. That year, Sammen enrolled in the state militia, a typical first step to joining the national armed services. In February 1918, he got a notice to appear for a physical, and shortly thereafter he was sent to Napanoch, NY. His next stop was Fort Dix, NJ, from where he would be shipped overseas. Along the way he acquired an insurance policy, dog tags, and a Pay Record Book, which he had to show the Paymaster once a month to earn his pay of $33.00, minus his benefits premium, for a grand take-home pay of $21.10.
Rick Brooks didn’t have to tell the story alone. He invited audience member George Sidgwick, who was born in England and spent his childhood there, to come up front and describe the interesting artifacts he had brought to the program to place on the table with Brooks’ own. Sidgwick held up a small model tank. Tanks were new during WWI, and Sidgwick asked rhetorically who knew where they got the name, tank. Then he answered his own question. Their production was kept a secret; the official word was that what was being built were water tanks. When they were put out on the battle fields the name stuck.
Sidgwick also described two items that looked like beautiful metal flower vases. Actually, they started life as 18-pound shell casings. Once fired, the casings weren’t left on the field. The soldiers reclaimed them and decorated them to make beautiful items.
Of his own family’s war experiences, Sidgwick said a few times, “I was lucky.” He explained, “My father and uncles fought in WWI. They all came home. My brother was in WWII. He came home. In my family we were very fortunate.” Certainly, all British families were not so fortunate. Sidgwick told of one WWI battle when more British soldiers died on one day than the total American deaths in Vietnam.
Back in the United States and France in 1918, new soldiers were informed of their obligation to write home regularly and were provided with postcards by the YMCA, which assigned a paid staff of 26,000 as well as 35,000 volunteers to provide social services to the enlisted men in every camp, fort, and ship. Brooks had the opportunity to research Sammen’s correspondence. What leapt out at Brooks was the different ways that the young soldier communicated to different members of his family. To his mother and sisters, he sent only good news: he was well, even gaining weight. To his father he wrote about numbers of deaths around him. The differences probably told as much about Andrew himself as about the reality of war. It was an era in which men protected the women they cared about from bad news.
When the United States joined the active war, Brooks said, France requested a particular type of young soldier, and Sammen met the profile perfectly. In high demand were young farmers, who had all the skills the French needed. They could build things, repair things, and they could shoot well, having all learned to hunt. For his $21.10, Sammen got assigned to Pioneer Infantry, made up of soldiers who could manage the resources, manage the forests, and fight as necessary. They carried both guns and tools (shovels, pickaxes, and saws).
While always ready to fight if necessary, the Pioneer Infantry performed a variety of tasks. They could be called upon to demolish a building and grind the stone walls into gravel or to handle the dead, indexing where there were large enough spots to bury groups of them temporarily – at least in theory. Eventually, said Brooks, most of them were left behind.
Taking care of the dead applied not only to humans but to animals. Yes, there were motorized vehicles but horses and mules were important beasts of burden. Sadly, though, once a horse or mule got to France, its life expectancy was about eight weeks. While some of the farm boys had plenty of experience working with animals, they were not really equipped to handle major medical problems and, unlike the French, the Americans and British had no Veterinary Corps, so handling sick or dying animals was left to the French.
Brooks worked into his presentation another little-known fact – during this era, the Swastika used to be a good luck charm, and was know as such throughout the world until “Hitler highjacked it.”
Good luck or bad, eventually the war did end, and Sammen got his ticket home. The ships he and most Americans sailed home on, had been German ships that sailed back and forth across the ocean prior to the war. His ship arrived back in the United States on July 5, 1919, greeted by YMCA workers and volunteers holding placards that read, “Well done, Men. America greets you.” The new arrivals didn’t get to go home right away, but first had to mop up things onboard. It wasn’t long though before Sammen and his fellow soldiers were free to join their families. In Highland they were honored at a big clam bake on the site of what is now Town Hall.
Andrew Sammen, glad to be back, spent much of his time sitting in a chair, “watching the cars drive by,” according to the local newspaper at the time. Eventually, in his senior years he entered a nursing home in Poughkeepsie. In October of 1970, he died – still a local hero- in Vassar Hospital.