Today is Veterans Day in the United States. The legal holiday is a commemoration of Armistice Day — and the Treaty of Versailles — that ended the Great War aka Word War I. This day is important to my family because my Grandfather, who fought in the Battle of Bellau Woods, was a prisoner of war in Germany at the time of the peace treaty signing.
Owen J. Denison was born in West Union New York in 1890. He grew up on a small family farm with a big family. Tragedy struck the farm sometime during his youth when two of his younger sisters died when the house caught fire during the winter. According to newspaper reports at the time, Owen tried to save them repeatedly, but was unable to reach the girls in the blaze.
When the Great War broke out in 1914, US military forces were unprepared for the conflict. The US stayed neutral until 1917 and then a selective service draft was signed into law, requiring all men aged 21-45 years to register. Owen was 28 years old in 1918 and unmarried. He must have been a strong man of the earth, accustomed to hard physical labor. He was working as an itinerant farm hand with no expectation that he would inherit the family farm given the size of his immediate family. I do not know if he was drafted or if he enlisted, but he signed the enlistment papers, along with his brother-in-law, in Binghamton, NY.
It seems that Owen had a good mind, capable of more than just hard labor. He became a member of the Signal Corps. How he ended up at Bellau Woods is unknown. Nor do we know if that is where he was captured. There are family stories about his cootie-bitten facial scars from his time in the trenches or the POW camp. Family legend has it that a young German girl took pity on him in the camps and she passed him extra food through the fence so that he could survive.
About 20 years ago I took a trip to Paris. At the Arc D’ Triumph and at Versailles I felt closer to my grandfather than I ever had. In the gilded halls of the palace, it occurred to me that without that treaty signing, I likely would not have been born.
When Owen returned to his small hometown in Western New York, he never left the area again. Nor did he ever pick up another gun. He married my grandmother and moved to the farm owned by her family. They had one son, my father. He insisted on hard work for his son, but family friends who knew him told me stories of picnics and fun organized by the ex-soldier. Dad says that he was a quiet man who never discussed his war-time experiences.
Owen died of a massive stroke in 1948.
May we never forget the sacrifices of men like Owen. May we find a way to combat hate with love so that others do not have to experience war. May we honor and thank the men and women who stand guard for us. Happy Veterans Day.