Three days ago, an item on the Associated Press news wire caught my attention: In Morgantown, West Virginia, Frank Buckles had passed away quietly, at the age of 110. He was America’s last surviving veteran of World War I, and therein lies a story whose aftermath is still shaping world history today.
It all started with another news item which by rights, ought to have caused little more than a raised European eyebrow or two; on June 28, 1914, the heir-apparent to the Hapsburg throne in Austria-Hungary, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, were assassinated by an 18-year-old student radical while visiting Sarajevo, Serbia. Thirty days later, Austria declared war on Serbia, and a series of mutual defense treaties began to come into play. First, Germany declared war on Russia, then within another few days, Belgium and France. On August 4th, Great Britain declared themselves at war with Germany, and the dominoes came tumbling down. Within weeks, twenty-seven nation-states had declared war, and what became known as “The Great War” (eventually World War I) was underway.
Protected by two oceans and a calculated sense of political and social isolationism, America watched as what had started with a single terrorist act exploded into vicious warfare across three continents, even as a generation of neighboring Canadians were dying by the thousands on far-flung battlefields. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, an academic and political “Progressive” dealt mostly in peace-loving platitudes and promises to keep his country out of the fray, while finding it more and more difficult to remain “neutral”, especially as German U-boats threatened American shipping.
Finally, on April 6, 1917 – after nearly four years of unprecedented bloodshed – the United States joined with the Allied Nations by declaring war on the “Central Powers”. Under the command of U.S. Army General John J.”Blackjack” Pershing, an American Expeditionary Force was assembled and sent off to the battlefields of France, where the conflict had settled into bogged-down trench warfare, where thousands died every day, fighting for a few meters of useless shell-churned soil.
During the 3rd battle of Ypres in the summer of 1917, within a five-mile square of Flanders fields, casualties surged to 850,000, with the Allies suffering 140,000 dead! The word Passchendaele and the red poppies which grew there have become symbolic of the human tragedy played out there. (Two inches of ground changed hands for every soldier’s death; ground which would be lost again in following weeks!)
In time, U.S. intervention helped to turn the tide of war, saving Paris from occupation and bringing to bear an immense economic capacity the Central Powers could never match. Five million American volunteers –“ Doughboys” -- would serve and a high price in lost and damaged lives would be paid. In a larger sense, the world would never be the same: the concept of “total war” had been born, and of the nearly 18 million dead, 6.8 million were civilians. Across Europe, two generations of men and boys were gone, leaving behind one million widows and three million orphans. The “Great War” represented a true watershed in the devaluation of human life, and would serve to define the way wars of the future would be fought.
While artillery, the machinegun, and poison gas brought about the greatest number of battle casualties, there arose a new kind of wound no one knew how to treat. For want of a better term, it was known as “shell shock” and was too often written off as war-weariness, or even cowardice; no one had thought up the term “post-traumatic stress disorder” yet, and millions of America’s “doughboys” came home to face years or even a lifetime of emotional suffering.
The “Great War” – the “war to end all wars”- not only failed to live up to that lofty expectation, but actually set in motion events and circumstances which would make the wars to follow almost inevitable. While the United States would be thrust into a position of leadership, England would cease to be the world’s greatest empire; national borders would be redrawn, new nation-states with mixed populations invented from left-over bits and pieces, revolutions spawned and arbitrary peace conditions imposed which would insure lasting enmities and crushed economies. The Versailles Treaty would produce fertile ground for the birth of Nazism and the rise to power of Adolph Hitler; and the stage would be set for the expansion of Communist influence around the shrinking globe. Japan, a member of the Allied Powers would feel “short-changed” in a division of the spoils at war’s end, and would nurture a history-changing direction in foreign policy.
All of this crosses my mind as I revisit the memories of growing up with a father who returned from that war with wounds that followed him through life, and I silently render a special heart-felt salute to Frank Buckles, the last American “Doughboy”.
NOTE: Frank Buckles enlisted in 1917 at the age of 16 serving in England and France. Later in life as a civilian, he was captured by the Japanese in the Philippines during the early days of WW II and spent three-and-a-half years as a POW. He devoted his late years to memorializing WW I “Doughboys”.
German and Allied “walking wounded” make their way to an aid station during the Battle of the Somme, July 19, 1916. Nearly ten million had already died by the time the U.S. entered WW I in April, 1917.
Imperial War Museum Collection
U.S. Marines and French Army soldiers gather on May 30th, 2010 to mark the 92nd anniversary of the battle of Belleau Wood which took place near the cemetery in the photo in 1918. It was in this battle that the U.S. Marine Corps established itself as a legendary fighting force, and it was here that Auburn Forest Cooper, 20th Co., 5th Marine Regiment - father of the writer – was seriously wounded.
U.S. Marine Corps. Photo