WEST HARWICH — On Sunday, Americans come together to honor veterans, on what will be the 100th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended World War I. With all its witnesses now gone, the bloody battles of the Great War seem impossibly long ago and intangible.
But thanks to a little elbow grease, some brass cleaner and a bit of curiosity, a meaningful artifact from the Great War has been rediscovered. An engraved shell casing, which served for years as a doorstop and umbrella stand in the library at Holy Trinity Church, has a unique history tying it to the bloody Battle of Verdun and a notable Harwich family.
Holy Trinity parishioner Bob Johnson noticed the object one day and became curious. The cylinder, open at the top, was nearly black with tarnish but was engraved with ornate flowers and a stamped pattern, and Johnson could just make out the word “Verdun.” An artist and history buff, he took on the project.
“I thought I’d bring out the brass polish and see what’s going on,” he said.
Nobody at the parish knew anything about the object. Parishioner Charlotte LeBlanc said she’s been coming to the library regularly for years, walking past the shell casing each time.
“I never noticed it,” she said.
After about eight hours of “elbow grease and Brasso,” Johnson knew he’d found a treasure. Painstakingly etched and stamped into the brass were flowers, some protruding slightly from the background, having been stamped outward from the inside of the cylinder. The top rim of the shell had been fluted gracefully. The art was remarkable not just because of the ornateness, but because of where the artist most likely worked: in the combat trenches. Not unlike the scrimshaw crafted by heartsick mariners of old, World War I foot soldiers often passed the time by carving designs into the soft brass casings of artillery shells.
“Usually it was smaller shell casings,” Johnson said. This cylinder is several inches in diameter and weighs around 20 pounds.
In beautiful script, the following words were inscribed on the shell casing: “Marachal Petain, Honorary President; Monsignor Ginisty, Bishop of Verdun; and members of the Building Committee of the Douaumont Ossuary; to Mrs. Harold L. van Buren; in memory of the Bourdon de la Victoire; Thanks to her generosity; Douaumont, September 19, 1927.”
The inscription led Johnson to the history of the artifact and its connection to Harwich.
Anne Moore Thorburn van Buren, a socialite whose husband was American consul to France, had a summer home in Bayview Road in Harwich Port. The two lived for a time in France, and when he died in 1907, Mr. van Buren was buried there.
The Great War brought carnage on a scale the world had never known, claiming 9.9 million French and German soldiers. Its deadliest battle happened around the town of Verdun in northeastern France in 1916. The French prevailed after nearly 10 months of bloody combat, but not before more than 300,000 soldiers died. After the war, it was impossible to identify the remains of those soldiers and civilians, or even to know whether they were French or German.
In 1927, work was completed on the Douaumont Ossuary, a massive national cemetery outside Verdun containing the remains of around 130,000 unknown soldiers. The memorial includes a ceremonial bell that was donated by Anne van Buren. (Known for her generosity, Mrs. van Buren also helped found the Harwich Port Library and the Christ Episcopal Church in Harwich Port.) The engraved artillery shell, apparently unearthed during the construction of the ossuary, was further engraved with her name and presented to Mrs. van Buren in a gesture of thanks.
How the artifact ended up at Holy Trinity is less clear, but it appears that it had come into the possession of Anne van Buren’s daughter-in-law, Edith Ross Pardee van Buren, a longtime French teacher at Harwich High School, Nauset High School and Dennis-Yarmouth regional high. Edith’s sister, Constance Pardee Collinge, also lived in Harwich Port, and converted to Roman Catholicism at the time of her marriage, becoming a parishioner at Holy Trinity. It seems likely that Constance donated the object to the church. Johnson’s research, which led to that theory, also led him to Alice van Buren Kelley of East Harwich, Anne van Buren’s granddaughter.
“It’s always neat when there are solid objects that connect to the past,” she said. Because Anne was prominent in the social scene in her time, she appears repeatedly in newspaper articles. When Johnson called Kelley about the artillery shell, “I thought, oh my gosh, there’s another neat story,” she said.
“It amazes me how the people in the trenches were able to find some way to keep themselves sane with all the horror around them,” she said. The shell casing was likely “somebody’s way of keeping their balance,” Kelley said.
Fr. Marc Tremblay, the pastor at Holy Trinity, agrees with Johnson that the artifact should be made available to a wider audience, though there are no final plans for publicly displaying the item. Johnson said the shell casing will also tarnish again following its most recent polish, and should be properly preserved.
The artifact is more than just a tangible connection to history, Johnson said. As an artist, he appreciates the work that went into engraving and stamping the delicate design, working on a battlefield.
“I have no idea how he did it. Really,” Johnson said. But the fact that blooming roses were the vision of the soldier-artist, even as he dodged other artillery shells fired the enemy, says something about the human condition.
“Artists hope,” Johnson said.