The Ocean County Compendium of  History
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Verdun Monument Mystery

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  The Mystery of the Battle of Verdun Monument at Island Heights, New Jersey
  By Steven J. Baeli
  February 27, 2018

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There is an old mystery in Island Heights, a stone monument that has been sitting along the banks of Barnegat Bay at the head of the Toms River for almost a century. Situated under the borough flag pole, it faces east toward its namesake, Verdun, France, some 3800 miles across the Atlantic Ocean.  Little is known of its origin, a memorial to World War I veterans who once worked for John Wanamaker's department stores and drilled in his military summer camps in the borough. 
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                       The Verdun Monument Overlooking the Barnegat Bay
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What is odd is that America was not involved in the Battle of Verdun, which took place from February 21st through December 18th, 1916.  The United States did not officially join the effort against the Central Powers until April 6, 1917, and did not send troops overseas until May, under the command of General "Black Jack" Pershing, who led the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) into Europe. Even then it took until June 1917 to import the first 14,000 troops into the interior of France.

So, how did a monument commemorating the soldiers who fought at Verdun come to represent Wanamaker's boys?
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                           Cadets Drilling at Wanamaker Camp, Island Heights
                              (Courtesy of the Island Heights Cultural & Heritage Association)
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First some background on Wanamaker Camp, known officially as the John Wanamaker Commercial Institute [J.W.I.C.], which served as a summer retreat for young male and female employees of Wanamaker's department stores in both Philadelphia and New York.  The idea behind the camp was to get the kids out of the city for a while and get them in touch with the natural settings of rural America.  The heat that often swelled to intolerable heights in the summertime, coupled with the opportunity to find trouble on the streets of the city, were perfect excuses to bring these teenagers to the shores of New Jersey, where they could enjoy the clean, salty air and freedom from the trappings of city life.

It was not all fun and games, however, as the cadets who attended camp were expected to conform to military standards: sleeping in tents, learning to march, learning how to properly handle and maintenance rifles and other weaponry, and generally living in a military fashion over the course of several weeks.

It is not exactly known just how many of those Island Heights summer residents were sent off to war, but shortly after the Armistice an attempt was made to survey both the survivors and those who were not as fortunate to make it safely "over the top."  That census gave us many accounts of survival and bravery, and the one recurring theme that can be gleaned from reading the collected stories was that if not for Wanamaker's camp, many believed they would not have lived to talk about their experiences, because their summers there gave the boys a solid sense of military training.
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      An example of a letter sent back from a veteran in the Wanamaker veterans' census

                                        (Courtesy of the Island Heights Cultural & Heritage Association)
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In a New Egypt Press article dated May 27, 1920, it was noted that the "John Wanamaker Commercial Institute propose[d] to erect in memory of its dead who gave their lives in the great war a Memorial Hall at the John Wanamaker Camp," which was located near the river and the current site of the stone memorial.  It is not clear if this building was ever erected, and there was no mention of the stone war memorial, but could it be that that was when the monument was put in place?

An article dated July 27, 1999 from the Ocean County Observer made that case, its author stating that in 1919 the Ocean County Freeholders established a celebration planning committee honoring returning veterans, however "the committee decided to abandon plans...opt[ing] instead to raise $3000 for a bronze tablet with the names of all those from Ocean County who served in World War I."  That article, which established that there were many such plans to celebrate the return of Ocean County's heroes, also stated that "Wanamaker had a sculptor create a monument marking the victory over the Germans at Verdun in France and had it put on the shore of Barnegat Bay, facing east."  As telling as that statement was, it is unclear if that was the case as there are no other sources found to date confirming it, and because there exists today in France other monuments that are near-exact duplicates of the one found in Island Heights.
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                           Moreau-Vauthier Monument Unveiling at Verdun
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In 1920, French sculptor, Paul Moreau-Vauthier, began making monuments to commemorate the battles of the French against the Germans, which he envisioned would be placed starting at the North Sea and running all the way across to the border of Switzerland, thus establishing the line of demarcation where the war front was fought.  According to a Wikipedia article on the subject, Moreau-Vauthier had planned to make 240 markers, but only 118 were actually put in place between 1921 and 1927.  Whether all 240 markers were actually constructed is not clear.
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                Théodore Vienne (left) with sculptor, Paul Moreau-Vauthier
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These monuments each had inscriptions etched into them in German and English, one being, "Hier werd de overweldiger tot staangebracht," loosely translated as, "Here the overwhelmed were stopped," and "Ici fut arrete L'Envahisseur," meaning "Here was arrested the invader."  The monument in Island Heights has only the German inscription, "Ici fut arrete L'Envahisseur," but a bronze plaque beneath it translated the phrase as, "Verdun - Here was stopped the Invader," which closely mirrors the German translations.

Otherwise both monuments are exactly the same down to every detail.

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                         The Verdun Monument at Island Heights, New Jersey
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The question then becomes, did Wanamaker commission Paul Moreau-Vauthier to sculpt this memorial?  Given that, other than the inscriptions, both the Island Heights and French monuments are the same, it is likely that he did, but with no clear evidence to support that claim we cannot be exactly sure if that is true, and quite frankly we cannot even be sure that Wanamaker was involved at all or when the Island Heights stone was actually mounted.  John Wannamaker died in December of 1922, which puts him in the timeframe, but that is still not proof-positive of his involvement.

Of course other questions come to mind, such as why a monument to the Battle of Verdun? Why not make something specific to the Wanamaker cadets?  Was it something that was already made or perhaps, if these stones were poured and not chiseled into existence, that the mold that formed them was still available?

It is likely that Mr. Wanamaker, given his patriotic adoration of the American military and its veterans, particularly those whom he had trained at the J.W.I.C., would have been the mastermind behind bringing such an honor to light, but until credible evidence is produced, we can only make an educated guess about the origins of the Battle of Verdun monument, which means that the mystery still remains.
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                                                    John Wanamaker
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