Monday, October 21, 2013

World War One Monument at Maury Cemetery

November 11 marks Armistice Day, the day in 1918 that was to signal the end of “the war to end all wars.” Among the thousands of American dead were twenty-four young men from South Richmond.  Six years after the Armistice an organization called the South Richmond Patriotic Committee collected funds and dedicated a memorial to these fallen South Richmonders.  It should be remembered that this was still only thirteen years after the independent city of Manchester became part of Richmond, so there was no shortage of residual civic pride in the close-knit neighborhoods south of the James.  The monument, with the stark if sadly mistaken inscription, “WORLD WAR,” was erected at the entrance of Maury Cemetery, the municipal cemetery at the intersection of East 29th and Maury Streets.

For ages, spoils of war were publically displayed in triumph over the defeated and as a memorial to the fallen, and World War I was no exception.  Following the disarmament of Germany, all manner of captured artillery became available in this country to approved organizations, and cannon and vehicles taken from “the Hun” began to appear in the front yard of post offices and on courthouse lawns all over the United States. Richmond’s American Legion post obtained a German artillery piece and combined it with a flagpole to mark a small section reserved for veterans at Maury Cemetery.

  A vintage newspaper image of a captured German
trench mortar identical to the one on display at Maury Cemetery.

The small, blunt cannon that the American Legion mounted behind a bronze plaque with their symbol on it is a rather rare example of special type of artillery: a trench mortar.  Termed a 17 cm mittlerer Minenwerfer (literally, “minethrower”), this large-caliber and short-range artillery piece fired a high explosive round at low velocity.  This, combined with the fact it was fairly easily portable, made it ideal for the trench warfare that characterized the First World War. 

One source noted that the 17 cm Minenerfer was prone to its ammunition detonating while still in the barrel, with the mortar and the entire gun crew who served it all disappearing in a thunderous explosion. This propensity to explode may explain why of the more than two thousand of this particular type of trench mortars that were made for the German army, only four (including the example in Richmond) are believed to survive in various museums and displays around the world.

The 17 cm. "Minenwerfer" German trench mortar that has commemorated the
end of the "War to end all wars" since being placed in Maury Cemetery ninety years ago.

Those veterans who carefully positioned the German trench mortar in Maury Cemetery did so confident no worse war would ever be waged then the one they had just witnessed. The granite marker to their war, below crossed flags, reads, “Fear not that ye have died for naught / The torch ye threw to us we caught…” From the vantage point of a hundred years later, these words seem sadly prophetic.  Visitors to the monument to the “World War” the South Richmonders commemorated need only to lift their eyes to the hilltop in front of them.  There, in 1947, yet another memorial committee remembered the dead of the next generation of men from Manchester, killed in yet another world war.  

The progression of war monuments of Maury Cemetery: in the foreground, the "World War" memorial, then the German trench mortar, and behind that the flagpole stands in a small veteran's section of the cemetery.  On top of the hill is the monument to the dead of South Richmond who were killed in the Second World War.

Today, nobody knows the route that took Richmond’s Minenwerfer from the Rheinmetall foundry in Düsseldorf, Germany through the stinking and muddy trenches of France and finally to the sloping lawns of Maury Cemetery.  There, amid the leaf-blown grass and quiet stones, the trench mortar and the monument it stands with mark the coming of the ninetieth winter in the cemetery.  They remain poignant reminders of a more innocent time, an age where Richmonders hoped and prayed in vain they had indeed seen the last of war.  

- Selden.