This year marks the centennial anniversary of the Treaty of Versailles, whose signing officially marked the end of World War I.
Men from Butte and Anaconda served in the war, which took the lives of more than 37 million civilians and military personnel worldwide. And while no living veteran from The Great War is alive today to tell of their experiences, one Anaconda soldier’s uniform provides a glimpse into what soldiers faced during one of the world’s deadliest conflicts.
The uniform belonged to Anaconda’s Daniel J. McKavanaugh, who served with the U.S. Army’s 16th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Expeditionary Division, also known as the “Big Red One.”
A display of McKavanaugh’s uniform will be unveiled during a ceremony at 4 p.m., Friday at the Anaconda-Deer Lodge County Courthouse.
Lee Burt, commander of the Anaconda chapter of the Disabled American Veterans organization, will be leading the proceedings.
For several years Burt, along with a fellow DAV member, have been setting up displays of uniforms worn by veterans from the Smelter City.
The intent of the displays, he said, has been to tell the soldiers’ stories through their uniforms and bring clarity to their families about the ways in which they served.
Burt has done extensive research on McKavanaugh, who was an immigrant from Ireland and served in several battles, including the 1918 Battle of Soissons in France. During the war, he was wounded three times and sustained injuries to his legs, hip and arm. He won several medals, including a Purple Heart, which he was awarded after the war.
Dan Laughlin is named after his grandfather, and he says that, although he never knew his grandfather, his memory was always part of family life.
Growing up, he heard countless stories from his parents and grandparents about how his grandfather served and fought for his country.
“They always talked about all the famous battles,” said Laughlin, who has six brothers and sisters. “We were always really proud of him.”
In addition to being wounded three times, McKavanaugh was gassed three times, according to Burt.
McKavanaugh suffered from a chronic respiratory illness after the war. He was especially sick the two years leading up to his death on Jan 7, 1942. He was 50 years old.
“He was pretty sickly after the war ended,” said Laughlin, adding that the Anaconda Company gave him a non-strenuous job to accommodate his breathing trouble.
Some historians view World War I as the first modern war. It was notable for its trench warfare, but also for the first widespread use of tanks and chemical weapons in the form of chlorine, phosgene and mustard gases.
News articles written at height of the war show that McKavanaugh was one among 93 Anacondans drafted into the war in September 1917. According to those accounts, many of those men were volunteers.
The 93 men were inducted locally and were the honorees at a celebration of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. By the following Monday, Burt said, they were gone, having departed Anaconda by train from the city’s depot.
Among the 93 headed off to war was an Anaconda man by the name of Richard Heller, who served in the same company of the Big Red One as McKavanaugh.
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Heller wasn’t so lucky as to make it out of the war alive. Heller perished in 1918 at the Battle of Soissons in France. It wasn’t until 1921 that his body was brought back to Anaconda.
Heller wasn’t the only Anaconda man to lose his life in The Great War.
In the Jan. 5, 1919 issue of The Anaconda Standard, the paper lists 25 Anacondans who at that time were known to have died in the war. It lists 29 wounded.
Heller was buried in Hill Cemetery and was given a formal military-style funeral. McKavanaugh was one of several men who fired a salute at the funeral.
The loss of family members to war is something that Laughlin’s family knows well.
The Anaconda native said that his wife’s mom, his grandmother on the other side of his family, and his aunt all lost children to conflicts abroad.
“After their sons were killed, their lives were never the same,” he said.
Laughlin said his grandfather was very active in veterans’ organizations. A search of The Montana Standard’s archive reveals that he took part in several military funerals.
While preparing for the display, Burt said, a note in McKavanaugh’s pocket was found.
"I place these symbols of purity on this comrade's grave and may each future generation emulate the unselfish courage of our comrades who served under the starry banner of the free," the handwritten note reads.
The words are similar to a prayer that’s part of a ritual of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and other organizations. The words often accompany the placement of a white flower at a soldier’s grave during a military funeral.
McKavanaugh’s uniform marks the 25th display of an Anaconda veteran’s uniform.
The last known World War I veteran died in 2012, and with him, the last living memory of The Great War came to a close.
Of all the displays and the stories they’ve brought forth, Burt said, he has been especially touched by the World War I veteran’s legacy.
As part of his research, Burt visited McKavanaugh’s grave, which Laughlin’s family has maintained since 1942.
“I needed a sense, a feeling,” Burt said, noting that visiting the grave was a way for him to understand the man and to understand a war that today resides only in images, words and relics.
Relics like a soldier’s uniform.