One hundred years ago July 18, two young men from Skowhegan were killed by machine gun fire in World War I during the Battle of Chateau-Thierry in France, about 45 miles northeast of Paris.

Alvan Bucknam, 19, and Harry “Mickey” St. Ledger, 20, had left classes at Skowhegan High School and Bloomfield Academy the prior year to join the U.S. Army along with six other classmates.

These soldiers from Skowhegan served during WWI. In back row from left are Cpl. Ralph Merrow, wounded; Sgt. Casimir Bisso, wounded; Cpl. Harry St. Ledger, killed; and Bugler Guy Badger. In front from left are Sgt. Carl Toby, wounded; Capt. Alvan Bucknam, killed; Sgt. Brooks Savage and 2nd Lt. John Emery, wounded. Staff photo by David Leaming

“They were fighting the Germans out of the so-called Squad of 1917,” said David Harville, a Skowhegan historian and retired high school U.S. history teacher. “Six of the eight were either killed or wounded — 75 percent casualties — and those who survived came back to Skowhegan as heroes, and they were awarded their high school diplomas.”

Harville spoke of World War I Tuesday at his kitchen table, where he was surrounded by all sorts of war memorabilia he has collected over the years.

As the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I looms Nov. 18 this year, he wanted to talk about those who sacrificed their lives so long ago.

It may have been a long, long time ago, but what they did is still relevant, according to Harville, 68.

“The past explains the present,” he said. “History is very much alive. It’s very meaningful.”

Skowhegan historian David Harville on Tuesday holds up a banner used to show that a resident was serving in the military during WWI. This particular banner was displayed by the family of Capt. Alvan Bucknam, of Skowhegan. Staff photo by David Leaming

I don’t know anyone more passionate about history than Harville, who retired from teaching 11 years ago but continues to immerse himself in Skowhegan’s past and learn everything he can about those who served in various wars and conflicts.

Who else would know, for instance, that Bucknam and St. Ledger’s gravestones in Southside Cemetery off Main Street in Skowhegan are 150 feet apart, the exact same distance between them when they fell in battle and died?

The grave marker of Cpl. Harry St. Ledger, killed during WWI, at the Southside Cemetery in Skowhegan. Staff photo by David Leaming

Harville took me on a mini-tour of the cemetery, where Bucknam’s large granite marker is a stone’s throw from my maternal grandparents’ and great grandparents’ stones which I visit every year around Memorial Day, but I never knew the story about St. Ledger and Bucknam until Harville told it to me Tuesday at his home.

“It was the first day of the Battle of Chateau-Thierry,” he said of the day they died. “The Germans were trying to invade and occupy Paris and the Skowhegan boys, part of the 26th Yankee Division, were trying to stop them, and at Chateau-Thierry, the German attack was stopped and it became the turning point of World War I in France. After this battle, America went on the offensive and the Germans were on the defensive.”

Bucknam, an Army corporal, had lived on Madison Avenue in Skowhegan in a house that is now the home of Kel-Mat Cafe. Harville held up a red, white and blue banner featuring the words, “Over There,” which families would display in their windows or doors, indicating they had a son in the service.

“This came from the Bucknam House,” he said. “There is a sundial at Coburn Park in memory of Alvan Bucknam.”

Bucknam and St. Ledger had been very popular boys in town before they left to serve, according to Harville.

“They played football, they had excellent personalities and charm with virtually everybody. The girls loved them. The adults in town knew them, and it was really quite interesting, especially if we look back from today. This probably wouldn’t have happened, that young men would leave their high school classes and go to France and give their blood, their guts and their lives.”

The six of eight in the Squad of 1917 who survived were Corporal Ralph Merrow, Sgt. Casimir Bisson, Bugler Guy Badger, Sgt. Carl W. Tobey, Lt. John D. Emery and Sgt. Brooks Savage. Merrow, Bisson, Tobey and Savage were injured; Badger and Emery were not, according to Harville.

The grave marker of Capt. Alvan Bucknam, killed during WWI, at the Southside Cemetery in Skowhegan. Staff photo by David Leaming

In all, 17 men from Skowhegan were killed in the war and Maine lost more than 1,000, he said.

Interestingly, St. Ledger was Skowhegan high-schooler Margaret Chase Smith’s boyfriend, according to Harville. Smith went on to become a prominent U.S. senator. Harville knew Smith and served on the Margaret Chase Smith Library’s Advisory Committee, as did I, in years past.

“She told me it was the first boy that she ever kissed or that kissed her — the St. Ledger boy,” Harville said. “She encouraged me quite strongly to research the boys killed in World War I. Why? Because her first boyfriend was killed in World War I.”

When Harville taught U.S. history at Nokomis Regional High School in Newport for 36 years before retiring in 2007, he was as enthusiastic as he is today about sharing what he knows of military history.

“It was fun to light the fire with students. You can’t fill the pail — there’s too much history to teach. There’s too much to know. I’m still learning.”

I was curious to know what lit the fire under him — how he came to be so fascinated with all things historical, particularly those related to the military. Without skipping a beat, Harville remembered when he was 4 or 5, standing on South Street in Skowhegan with his grandmother in front of her house, and the next-door neighbor, Pete Riel, was putting a flag up.

Skowhegan historian David Harville on Tuesday speaks about local men who served in the military during WWI. Harville’s home is filled with military artifacts. Staff photo by David Leaming

“I happened to notice on the stile on the front door someone carved ‘R R.’ I asked my grandmother who would do that and she whispered, ‘David, that was a boy that was killed in Normandy in World War II.'” The boy’s name was Robert Riel.

Harville was transfixed, and from that moment, he absorbed everything he could about military history, particularly as it relates to his home town.

“It’s just amazing to me that, for example, in World War II, wherever American fought in the world, Skowhegan boys were not only there, but they gave their lives.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter for 30 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at aca[email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.

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