Originally published in the Bennington Banner on May 28, 2018.
One hundred years ago, more than 500 Bennington citizens left their homes in the Green Mountains in an effort to “make the world safe for democracy.”
Of those men and women 16 would be killed — six from diseases like influenza — and 27 more would be wounded in action. Though many Bennington families contributed literal life and limb to the war effort, one name stands out in particular to local researcher Robert Tegart — who has dedicated himself to studying the social impacts of “The Great War” in Bennington.
Bennington’s Larin family gave four sons to the allied effort during the First World War according to Tegart, both through the Canadian and American military. While three returned to Bennington wounded, however, one would not make it out alive.
A labor of love
Tegart, who became a member of the Bennington community a year and a half ago, has long enjoyed a love of history. Upon moving to the Green Mountains the retiree set to researching his new home’s role in World War One, with a specific focus on the social impacts of the war.
“It goes back to my childhood, when my father and uncles went away to World War Two,” explained Tegart, whose mother and mother-in-law also served the war effort on the homefront. “I like to look at communities and see how war impacted families; how they got through it, and how they carried on afterwards. That’s my thrust here in Bennington — trying to figure out what happened on the homefront before, during, and after the war.”
Tegart is no stranger to such in-depth study, having pursued a similar project in his former home of Clinton, NY. In Bennington, the citizen historian has scrutinized all records of the war to be found — utilizing the Bennington Museum, the Bennington Free Library, and Banner archives — to compile a masterlist of approximately 515 local residents who served in World War One.
“I put names in a spreadsheet as I found them, and when I sorted it by last name I noticed that there were four Larin’s,” Tegart said. “I came across some other groups of siblings too, but the four of them really stuck out.”
‘Lovers of peace,’ sent to war
As the war began across the Atlantic in 1914, Bennington was rather isolated within the Green Mountains with a somewhat self-sufficient economy of farms and textile mills. Three years later, however, Bennington would shirk that isolation to contribute to the war effort.
“In this old Vermont town, we are lovers of peace but we are believers first in national fair play and integrity,” read a Banner editorial in 1917. “We may have to enter the world war. If we do, let it be known that Vermont is not behind the rest of the union, nor Bennington the last place in Vermont in readiness for this duty.”
Many Bennington residents enlisted, serving throughout all branches of the Armed Forces. These soldiers were not a diverse group, Tegart notes, with most born in Bennington — or elsewhere in Vermont — and of French or British heritage. With an average age of 24, many left behind the farms, mills, and shops of their hometown.
Not all who enlisted were men, though, as Tegart cites three Bennington area women who served either in the Army Nurse Corps or the Red Cross in France.
“These women were on the front lines,” Tegart said, noting that women’s groups also played a significant role on the homefront. “That was fascinating to me, in that era, when they couldn’t even vote. I believe that one woman from Arlington was an ambulance driver, and she was one of the first people to enter a formerly occupied town with her ambulance. That’s pretty gutsy.”
Perhaps the largest wartime contribution from one family, however, bore the ‘Larin’ surname. A French-Canadian family who immigrated to Bennington at the turn of the century, the Larins and their six children eventually settled down on Bennington’s Park Street. By 1917, Margaret Larin was a widow with two daughters — Louise and Margaret — as well as four sons: Joseph, George, Francis, and John.
Margaret’s eldest son, Joseph, did not wait for the United States to enter the war effort, but rather returned to his home country of Canada to enlist at the age of 29. It was in 1914 that Joseph vowed to be “faithful and bear true allegiance to his majesty King George the Fifth” in his service with the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force.
Though there was no draft in Canada at the time, Tegart says that many French Canadians in Vermont felt compelled to do their “patriotic duty and return to join the forces.”
Joseph was not the only brother to travel to Canada, but he was the only one to elist successfully in 1914 according to Tegart. The second oldest, George, enlisted in April 1915 at the age of 22, and was assigned to the 36th Battalion Canadian Expeditionary Force. Just as his unit prepared to depart, however, George was struck by temporary blindness and discharged as medically unfit on May 25, 1915. Though his younger brother Francis also tried to enlist in Canada, he was discharged for unknown reasons according to Tegart.
In France Joseph suffered from trench foot, and was wounded on two separate occasions. The second injury would prove most severe, with extensive wounds to Joseph’s face and jaw culminating in a medical discharge.
“He was terribly wounded in the jaw, and this is 1915 so the medical sciences in terms of reconstruction weren’t there yet,” Tegart explained. “They put him back together with skin grafts, bone grafts… I’ve got the records of him in hospitals in France, then in Britain, and finally they brought him back to Canada.”
After his bout of blindness George returned to Benington to work at Black Cat Textiles, and was inducted into the United States Army in April 1918. Just months later, on Oct. 9, George was killed in action and later buried in France’s Meuse Argonne American Cemetery.
John, 21 at the time, was shipped off to France in 1918. Just two days before George’s death, John was wounded in action with injuries to the face and jaw. The 26 year old Francis was drafted three days after John enlisted, and embarked for France in May 1918 — though he was wounded in action by a shot to the arm on July 31, 1918.
For a period of approximately six months, Margaret Larin received no information on the condition or exact whereabouts of her sons. It was not until the war was over in 1919 that the mother learned of her three sons in recovery, and received notice that George had been killed in action.
“I keep thinking of this poor mother, who at one point didn’t know if her children were alive or dead,” Tegart said. “I can’t imagine what that woman went through.”
Joseph spent several years in Canada recovering from his wounds, and later returned to Bennington to find work in the mills. As the Great Depression began, and employment became scarce, Joseph returned to Canada where he would die in 1952. John went on to work as a furniture salesman in Bennington, and was eventually employed by several local establishments including the Paradise Inn, the Four Chimneys, and the Monument Inn. Francis also returned to Bennington, working at Black Cat textiles initially and later opening Larin’s Battery Shop in Bennington.
“Four brothers from Bennington left home to serve their country, and three would return to Bennington and Canada,” wrote Tegart in his research. “Like many of the World War I veterans, these citizen soldiers would return to civilian life, pick up where they left off, and attempt to live out their lives in peace.”
An ongoing effort
It was exactly 100 years ago that the Larins, and other Bennington families like them, saw their sons and daughters march off to war — some, like George, to never return. From Tegart’s perspective, it’s the impact that war has on those families that’s most compelling.
“It really goes back to my parents, and their role in the second World War,” Tegart said. “That war touched everyone, and I was curious if the First World War was the same way. Maybe not to the same degree as it was a shorter war, but it was certainly impactful.”
Though Tegart has spent the last year and a half researching, he says there’s still more work to be done. As there seems to be no trace of the Larin family in Bennington’s modern-day records, Tegart is hoping that members of the community may come forth with stories, pictures, or letters regarding the Larins and other World War I veterans from the area.
Once he’s satisfied, the citizen historian may even pursue research on Bennington in World War Two.
“People think that I’m a warmonger sometimes, but it’s not war that I study,” Tegart concluded. “I’m a pacifist. I’m not unpatriotic, I know that you have to do what you have to do, but I believe in looking at the social impact of all of this silliness.”
Do you have documents, photos, or stories to share regarding the Larin’s or other local World War One Veterans? If so, consider contacting researcher Robert Tegart at firstname.lastname@example.org.