Merwin Geise was born in 1896 in the Haskell area. Growing up on King Street in Olean, he couldn’t have had any notion that, as a young man, he would find himself in bloody trenches in Europe, risking his own life to save the lives of others in a hellish war.
But Geise, like so many young men in Olean and the surrounding area, answered the call when the United States entered World War I in April of 1917. One-hundred years ago, he was in France and Germany.
We mention Geise today as a way of reminding readers that our special section, commemorating the end of WWI, is inserted in today’s edition, which was a collaborative effort with The Bradford Era and Community Newspaper Group, of which we are a part.
Joe Champlin of Olean submitted the information about Geise, who was his grandfather. Having enlisted on May 29, 1917, in Buffalo, Geise served in the U.S. Ambulance Corps, with Company No. 2, attached to the U.S. Army’s 1st Division.
In the summer of 1918, Geise was among 14 men in his unit who earned the Croix de Guerre from a grateful France for bravery in battle. In a letter to his cousin, Agnes Jobe of North Sixth Street, written July 6, 1918, and eventually printed in the Olean Evening Times, he rather laconically mentions his decoration:
“There are 14 men that are cited for Croix de Gurres (sic) for bravery in a recent battle in which we took part and I am one of them.
“We sleep in little tents under the trees and sure do sleep warm. I have been up to the trenches for fourteen days, where I took care of wounded men. It was rather dangerous work, but I rather liked it.”
Geise almost certainly was present for the May 28, 1918, Battle of Cantigny. The small village north of Paris is where the 1st Division attacked and defeated German forces, then held it against repeated German counterattacks, despite suffering more than 1,000 casualties. The success raised the Allies’ morale, convinced the British and French that the Americans were capable of operating in independent fighting units, and disproved German propaganda about Americans’ alleged inability to fight.
In his letter, Geise describes the beauty of the French countryside and, at the time of his writing, the lovely weather.
“There are many trains running through this place, but none of them can begin to come up to the trains in the dear old States.
“We have a fine base ball team in our company. We have won all the games we have played this year so far. I do not believe that there is a team around here that could beat our team. There are several fellows in the team that played base ball with some of the large colleges in the States.”
Geise returned from Europe to work in a glass factory in Olean. He married Madeline Wojciechowski and they had three children, Betty, Dorothy and Bernice — Bernice Clark, Champlin’s aunt, lives today in Olean.
Geise lived for a time in Rochester but returned to Olean, where he died in 1959; he lies in St. Bonaventure Cemetery in Allegany. His name is also inscribed among many others in the entranceway of the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels.