A World War I battle 100 years ago is remembered daily at Cantigny Park’s First Division Museum
Jackie Gillaspie couldn’t believe it when she saw her great-grandfather’s name while leafing through the pages of “First Over There: The Attack on Cantigny, America’s First Battle of World War I.”
But sure enough, there in print was Private Harry Gums, who died decades before Gillaspie was born. Passages in the book detail Gums’ exploits in the May 28-31, 1918, Battle of Cantigny in France.
Gillaspie, in 2014, was interning at the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park (Wheaton, Illinois), part of the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, when she discovered her great-granddad’s military record in the museum’s archive. Until then, she only knew he was a World War I veteran. Even with family, Gums had not disclosed his war experience.
Gums, it turns out, served in the Army’s First Division at the Battle of Cantigny. And here was his great-granddaughter, working in a museum dedicated to the First Division (now the 1st Infantry Division, the famed “Big Red One”) at a park named for the French village where he served in the Great War!
Gillaspie, now volunteer and program facilitator at the museum, said finding details about Gums at the Battle of Cantigny was “the craziest thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Today, she routinely shares her fateful connection when giving museum tours. From “First Over There,” she knows that Gums was wounded early in the battle while helping bandage a friend’s wound.
“I feel like I’m continuing his legacy by being here, and that’s an honor to me,” said Gillaspie, a Glenview native and Gurnee resident. “I love telling stories, and it’s really cool to be able to share his story with others. If he hadn’t survived, I wouldn’t be here today.”
The First Division Museum, which completed an extensive 10-month renovation in 2017, will host a full day of events to commemorate the Battle of Cantigny’s 100th anniversary, on May 28. Appropriately, the milestone falls on Memorial Day.
Meanwhile, Cantigny Park and McCormick Foundation executives and board members will travel to the battle site in France for a ceremony on May 26. At the Foundation’s expense, a century-old battlefield monument will be relocated to the center of Cantigny village, 66 miles north of Paris.
McCormick, a true citizen-soldier, served in the Illinois National Guard in 1915—four years after he was elected president of the Tribune Company. He served in the First Division during World War I, eventually earning the rank of Colonel. The Battle of Cantigny was the only major battle in which McCormick participated, but the experience affected him deeply. Upon returning to the United States, he renamed his Wheaton farm in Cantigny’s honor.
“The French people I’ve talked to are over the moon about this anniversary,” said Paul Herbert, First Division Museum executive director. “The fact that we’re doing so much here and in Cantigny, France, and elsewhere, I think the Colonel would be proud and excited. He would want to give the keynote speech.”
In 2008, Herbert wrote an article about the Battle of Cantigny’s significance. It was America’s first key battle of World War I and its first offensive. It also “bolstered the morale of America’s European allies at a critical moment,” he said.
Herbert further added that the successful end of World War I, 100 years ago this coming Veterans Day, created “the beginning of modern America. Where we are today started there.”
“Cantigny marked the emergence of the modern, permanently established, combined arms division in the U.S. Army, an organization that remained central to that army for the rest of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first,” Herbert wrote. “Furthermore, it was America’s first commitment in blood to democracy in Western Europe.”
Gillaspie’s great-grandfather shed some of that blood. While assisting his friend, Gums was shot through his right elbow, the bullet traveling through his forearm before exiting near his right thumb. He held his position in a fox hole for an hour before being evacuated. Gums couldn’t bend his arm the rest of his life, but never discussed the injury with family.
Gillaspie holds a bachelor’s in history with an emphasis in military history from Trinity International University and is finishing her master’s thesis on military history from Norwich University. She has several photos of Gums as well as his dog tags. Working at the museum “feels like fate,” she said.
“I’m grateful for the opportunities I have here and the ability to continue to tell his story.”
For more information on the Centennial Commemoration of the Battle of Cantigny, visit https://cantigny.org/event/centennial-commemoration-battle-cantigny/