AFGS will honor WWI vets Sunday

AFGS will honor WWI vets Sunday

American French Genealogical Society President Normand Deragon works on a display at the Earle Street facility on World War I veterans who died in service. (Breeze photo by Sandy Seoane)

WOONSOCKET – On July 4, 1921, a parade marched down Cumberland Street, stopping at the intersection of Social and Rathbun Streets, to lay a wreath in honor of Private Donatien Belhumeur, a city resident who was killed in action during World War I.

A crowd of residents and local dignitaries would continue through Woonsocket, stopping at nine different city squares to remember soldiers who had lost their lives in the conflict by rededicating spaces in their names. With a 21-gun salute and an address by then Mayor Adelard Soucy, they declared that their sacrifice would not be forgotten, and that from that day on, the downtown corner known as Market Square would be called Andrew F. Young Memorial Square, acknowledging another private killed in action on Sept. 12, 1918.

But nearly 100 years later, the names have indeed been forgotten by many, a problem that Roger Beaudry, treasurer of American French Genealogical Society, hopes to begin to remedy.

Beaudry has organized an event at AFGS this Sunday, Nov. 12, to honor the 76 men and two women from Woonsocket who died in World War I. AFGS will donate new metal plaques bearing the names of 11 city residents who died in service, to be hung throughout Woonsocket at the spaces where they were memorialized in the past.

“Much was done to memorialize these people, but much has disappeared,” said Beaudry. “We want to honor their memory.”

The event coincides with Veterans Day weekend, and will kick off the centennial anniversary of the conflict, which ended on Nov. 11, 1918.

“To that point it was the bloodiest war ever,” said Beaudry. “You had poison gas. You had machine guns. It was just insanity, and we shouldn’t forget that.”

Beaudry has spent the past three years researching the city’s contribution to the 100-year-old conflict and noted that there were some 2,000 people from Woonsocket who served. He’s compiled binders on the 78 who died containing all available military and medical records, newspaper articles and photographs whenever possible.

And on Sunday, guests to AFGS at 78 Earle St. will have a chance to see his work, and remember the sacrifices of the past. The event will begin at 1 p.m. when the Woonsocket Junior ROTC will post colors. Displays listing the names of local World War I veterans will be complemented by a slide show of newspaper clippings from the period and memorabilia from the conflict, provided by the Veterans Memorial Museum occupying the building’s third floor.

The event is open to the public and Beaudry has invited surviving family members of those who died in the conflict, most of whom are grandchildren or grand nieces and nephews now in their 90s.

“If they have any memories of their ancestors who fought in the war, we’d be glad to listen to them,” he said.

Dignitaries from across the state and beyond have said they plan to attend the ceremony, where Beaudry will present the signs to city, a gift from AFGS.

“We’ll be asking them to do something that’s 100 years overdue,” Beaudry said.

The signs will include the soldiers’ rank, name, how they died and the date of their deaths.

In addition to Young and Belhumeur squares, signs will acknowledge Private Joseph O. Normandin Memorial Square at the intersection of Front and Court Streets, formerly known as Court Square; Private Arthur Curtis Memorial Square at the intersection of Blackstone Street and Harris Avenue, formerly known as Randall Square; and Private Joseph R. Coutu Memorial Square, at the intersection of Greene and Bernon Streets. They’ll turn Depot Square back into1st Lt Harold F. Flynn Memorial Square, as it was intended in 1921, and Union Square, at the intersection of Providence Street and Smithfield Road, will once again be dubbed Private Alberic C. Riendeau Memorial Square.

The intersection of Social Street and Diamond Hill Road will again be named Private Giovanni Filice Memorial Square; a sign will acknowledge Private William Jolicoeur Memorial Square at the Intersection of Hamlet Avenue, Cumberland Street and Cumberland Hill Road; and where Knight, Cottage and Logee Streets meet will be Corporal Lionel O. Roberge Memorial Square.

A final sign will be placed at Dunn Memorial Park, a Fairmount park named after Edna G. Dunn, a secretary in the Navy who died of influenza while in service. Currently, a granite stone at the park bears her name.

“There’s no mention anywhere of who Edna G. Dunn is,” Beaudry said.

The historian noted that influenza was a common cause of death during the war and that the majority of soldiers died not of their wounds, but of disease. Many, he said, have interesting stories.

“Some of these men served in foreign armies. Some of them went to their home countries to fight before the U.S. was even involved in the war,” he said. “You don’t find many mentions of these people.”

Beaudry started the project after looking for information about his grandfather’s brother who served in the war, and discovering how much of the history seemed to be forgotten. He was rewarded for his efforts when he found a reference to Edgar Beaudry in a newspaper article on the dedication of Curtis Square. His ancestor, it seems, had spoken at the event.

“To see his name come up like that it kind of sent shivers down my spine,” Beaudry said. “It was very, very moving to me.”

As a member of Rhode Island’s World War I Centennial Commission, Beaudry will take part in events throughout the year, also focused on memorializing the past.

“We’re working to make sure it’s not forgotten, even though all of the veterans have left us,” he said.

The binders he has created will remain in the AFGS archives for the public.

“This is just my passion: to get this recognized,” Beaudry said. “Somebody has to remember them. It’s up to us.”