“I guess it doesn’t make any difference, once a man has gone. Medals and speeches and victories are nothing to them anymore. They died and others lived and nobody knows why it is so. They died and thereby the rest of us can go on and on.” ~ Ernie Pyle
On Nov. 10, 1918, 1st Sgt. Lawrence Scott Riddle, a Mattoon native, was killed on a battlefield near the Bois de Harville in France. Just hours later, at 5 a.m. the following day, an agreement was signed in a railroad car in the Forest of Compiègne calling for the end of fighting along the entire Western Front beginning at 11 a.m. that very day. And so, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the Great War came to a bloody end.
At home in Mattoon, the Nov. 11, 1918, edition of the Journal Gazette shared a story from a field correspondent in France who reported “Riddle And Companions Charge Guns.” While this story was short on details, it referenced Sgt. Riddle’s action at the Bois de Chaume on Oct. 11 in which, upon discovering an enemy machine gun nest, Riddle led four other soldiers in charging and capturing the guns. The action would be cited when Riddle was awarded the French Croix de Guerre, with a bronze palm.
But as the world was celebrating the end of the war and newspaper headlines spoke of demobilizing troops, the Riddle family waited for news of Lawrence’s return. It was news which would never come. On Thursday, Dec. 5, Harvey and Lillie Riddle received word from the War Department that their son was dead.
On Jan. 14, 1919, 1st Sgt. Lawrence Scott Riddle was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the medal was presented to his parents in exchange for their beloved son.
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Lawrence Riddle, and tomorrow, Veterans Day, marks the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI, the “War to End All Wars.”
Some people believe that in honoring our war dead and in building their memorials, we are glorifying war, but I would disagree. I think the real danger lies in forgetting their stories.
When we fail to remember the people behind the names on the memorials they simply become monuments to wars. In remembering the people, we are reminded of the tragedy, the waste, and the sorrow of those wars.
Lawrence Riddle was a likeable man. His social calendar included hosting parties, going to dances and trolley parties to Urban Park. He socialized with his peers in the Gibble, Gabble, Gobble and Git Club and went camping with his friends. Lawrence sang in the high school chorus and church choir, and acted in community plays. The January Class of 1905 “bequest” to Lawrence Riddle was “a remedy for the smile that won’t come off.”
Lawrence was a talented athlete, playing baseball, right-end for the high school football team, and running the mile, half mile, and various sprints on the track team, being noted as a bright outlook by one high school trainer. His athletic ability stood him in good stead when confronted by two would-be robbers one night, one of whom he knocked down with a heavy-right, and out-running the other because he was “too much of a sprinter” to be caught.
Lawrence was a faithful member of the Presbyterian Church, as were his parents before him. It was there that Lawrence served as a well-liked and respected Sunday school teacher until he left with the Army.
Eugene Orndorff, a neighbor, later spoke of how nice Lawrence was, how very kind he was to the children, and how Lawrence would take him to the farmer’s market. Although only 4 years old at the time, Orndorff remembered Lawrence’s sad farewell to his family when he left.
The loss of Lawrence was a huge blow to his family. Lawrence’s great niece, Kristi Riddle-LaRosa, said Lawrence and his father were extremely close. Lawrence’s older brother, Rollo, settled in Colorado after graduating from the University of Illinois, but Lawrence, after attending the U of I, returned to Mattoon to work with his father on the family farm. LaRosa said Lawrence’s father never got over the loss of his beloved son, a fact that was so widely known it was mentioned in Harvey’s obituary when he died in 1933. Lawrence’s mother buried all three of her sons.
After Riddle’s death, an American Legion was chartered and named in his honor, a number of his friends were charter members, and Mattoon High School dedicated the school yearbook to him, changing the name from the Green and Gold to The Riddle, a name it still bears today. Lawrence Riddle’s remains were returned to Mattoon in August 1921. The mayor, noting that Lawrence was “one of the boys” who had died serving our country, issued a proclamation requesting businesses be closed during the funeral. The funeral procession included a horse-drawn caisson and more than 460 local veterans donned their uniforms and marched.
When Lawrence was called up in the draft, he waived his original order number, requesting that the exemption board move up his induction date so he could join a group leaving for Camp Gordon, Georgia, in May, instead of leaving in September. Lawrence landed in France on Aug. 12. 1st Sgt. LeRoy Anderson who served with Lawrence in the 131st Infantry, said Lawrence was “one of the bravest men I have ever known.”
Lawrence Riddle is not the only service member to make the ultimate sacrifice; I believe they all deserve to be remembered and their stories recorded for future generations, but as time passes some of their stories are lost. We know the story of Lawrence Riddle, and we owe it to him to remember.
When we remember that Lawrence Riddle was a boy, a man, who always had a smile on his face and was always whistling, we are reminded of the person who wanted to live, as we do, and whose death left a great void in his family, with his friends, and in his community. And we are reminded of the unacceptable price of war.
Or maybe, in remembering, we are simply making a small payment on the great debt we owe to those who have sacrificed their lives in service to our country, so that the rest of us can go on and on.