MONMOUTH, Ill. — World War I has often been called the forgotten war. Although the centennial of the first Armistice Day will be celebrated this November, most Americans remain blasé about the global conflict that led to 16 million deaths and involved four million U.S. soldiers.
That was certainly not the case on the second anniversary of the signing of the armistice, when on Nov. 11, 1920, the city of Monmouth pulled out all stops to celebrate the historic date. The celebration kicked off at 2:22 a.m. — the exact minute the armistice was signed — with the blowing of all the factory whistles in town. Four big ranges were installed on the Public Square to cook Army-style meals for the public. That afternoon, the American Legion sponsored a professional football game at the college between the Rock Island Independents and the Chicago Thorn-Tornadoes.
But the day’s most memorable event was a massive patriotic parade at 11 a.m., featuring bands, veterans, floats and one curious object — an Austrian Feldhaubitze, or field howitzer, one of 3,000 cannon captured in November 1918 by Italian forces at Trieste. Weighing nearly two tons, the dual-purpose field and mountain was operated by two cannoneers sitting in seats attached to a double shield. It was pulled by three pairs of horses and could be broken down into three parts for transport in rough terrain. It fired a 100-mm shell capable of traveling 9,100 yards.
An hour prior to the Armistice parade, the gun was formally presented to Warren County by the Marion B. Fletcher post of the American Legion, to be permanently installed in front of the courthouse. But the route the cannon traveled from Italy to its final destination was a long and circuitous one.
The odyssey of the cannon began with two prominent Monmouth men — Col. Joseph W. McIntosh and his aide, Lt. Ralph Drain. McIntosh, formerly the vice president of Western Stoneware, had been hired by Herbert Hoover of the U.S. Food Commission to supervise distribution of American shipments of food to civilians in war-torn Austria. While in Trieste in the summer of 1919, the Monmouth duo managed to acquire the field gun with the plan of presenting it to their hometown.
That fall, the gun arrived in Monmouth, but city officials were reticent to allocate funds to create a permanent monument. As a result, the behemoth sat rusting over the winter in Central Park.
On May 3, 1920, Commander Dell Hardin of the local American Legion announced that at the request of Lt. Drain, the post had accepted the gift of the gun, and would see that it was properly mounted and cared for. Two days later, the post met in special session to formally accept the weapon and thank McIntosh and Drain for acquiring the cannon and shipping it at no charge to Monmouth.
On May 15, plans were announced to petition the Warren County Board of Supervisors to place the cannon on a concrete pedestal in front of the courthouse, with a plaque telling its history. On May 29, it was hauled from Central Park to the Pattee Plow Co. shops for restoration.
In June, the county approved the Legion’s request, and plans were made to place the gun to the left of the soldier monument, where a Civil War rifle was then located. In July, the rifle was relocated to the northwest with its barrel pointing west, opposite a Civil War mortar on the east side of the lawn, which pointed east.
Work on the new concrete base was completed in late July, at the expense of the Legion. No provision was made, however, for a descriptive plaque.
The week after the Armistice Day dedication, a dozen members of the Fletcher Post went to the courthouse and placed the freshly-painted cannon, facing south. The Monmouth Atlas reported that “Monmouth is one of the few cities in Illinois to boast of such a trophy of the world war.”
On that quotation hangs a mystery. The weapon from a forgotten war is today a forgotten monument. Missing from the courthouse lawn for several decades, I am hoping some reader has knowledge of its fate. Most local residents my age and older remember it, but don’t recall what happened to it or when it disappeared. My only clue is a photo taken in February 1969, in which the cannon is already missing, so it’s probably been gone a half century or longer.
A fine new veterans’ monument, dedicated in 1998, now graces the west lawn of the courthouse. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, though, if the old howitzer could be located and added to the display on Nov. 11, 2020, the 100th anniversary of its original dedication?
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian at Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about Western Illinois history for more than 35 years.