Centennial of the Great War

Nov 10, 2018

Over the past few years we have observed the centennial of the Great War, 1914-18. Now we approach the anniversary of the armistice that ended the fighting, which today we in America observe as Veteran’s Day. In my radio essays I have taken up quite a few topics touching on the Great War:

The Christmas Truce of 1914, when Allied and German troops laid down arms for the holiday and extended hands to one another in No Man’s Land

The writing of the Pulitzer prize-winning war novel, One of Ours, by the greatest of Great Plains novelists, Willa Cather

The farmer from Thompson, North Dakota, who named his two prize bull calves Kaiser Bill and Hindenburg, and

The impact of wartime casualties and continuing disabilities on prairie communities

What most draws my attention, as a Great Plains historian and a prairie boy, are those stories of wartime experience at the grassroots, involving ordinary people. Like this story from the fabled sinking of the Lusitania on 7 May 1915, when more than 1200 passengers died, including more than 120 Americans.

The only person from North Dakota listed on the manifest of the Lusitania was one Constance Hansen, a Danish immigrant woman from Lisbon, North Dakota. Unreported in the press was the sad story of Ms. Hansen. She had come to North Dakota and married a fellow named Tom Cullinan in 1910. Young Tom would die in February 1918. In 1915 his wife was traveling home to the old country under her maiden name, her father having paid her passage. She survived the sinking of the Lusitania, but I do not know how, or what became of her. There is some kind of human story there.

For an audience at the Fargo Public Library a few days ago I recounted the details of the mobilization and departure of North Dakota’s 1st and 2nd national guard regiments. President Woodrow Wilson had nationalized the national guard on 3 July 1917. North Dakota’s regiments were destined to be incorporated into the 41st United States Army Division, the Sunset Division, for service in France.

Citizens gathered the night of 29 September in Bismarck’s Belle Mehus Auditorium, which had been completed in January. A rousing concert by the Second North Dakota Regiment Band--musicians from Harvey directed by Harold B. Bachman--stirred patriotic enthusiasm. Bachman’s band was a great favorite with the public; people said those boys could play anything.

Now, judging by his name and home town, I presumed that the band leader, Harold Burton Bachman, was a German-Russian. I was wrong in that assumption. He was born to American-born parents in Illinois in 1892, moved with them to Minot, and somehow ended up at North Dakota Agricultural College for his higher education. There, as a cornetist, he became a protégé of the legendary Doc Putnam, founder of the Gold Star Band. He also would have had military training at NDAC.

When the US entered the Great War, young Bachman wrote the adjutant general and offered to recruit and rehearse a military band for the 2nd regiment. That band from Harvey became, in France, the 2nd Infantry Band and was so accomplished it was dubbed by the military brass “The Million Dollar Band.” Bachman went on to a distinguished performing and academic career, but also led bands in the Pacific theater during the Second World War. Bachman the bandsman should be better remembered at his alma mater and in his home state.

~Tom Isern