By Philip E. Jenks
Actually, there’s no one around who remembers the Great War. It has been a hundred years since the United States joined the cataclysm in April 1917, and that generation is long gone.
The anniversary is historically momentous and it certainly should be commemorated. The world was comprehensively changed after World War I. Monarchies collapsed, empires fell, and colonial holdings began to crumble. The sedate years leading up to the war are branded the fin de siècle – the end of an age that collapsed under its own weight.
Now the grainy newsreels of archdukes, kaisers, tsars, and Wilsonian democrats on our plasma screens are all we have left. The humans who occupied the era are gone and only their digital shades survive.
There are no World War I veterans left to tell the story and I’m saddened that my grandchildren will never meet one.
Nor will they meet other courageous figures of the era, the nurses, the medics, the pacifists who opposed U.S. entry into the war, the war widows, the gold star mothers.
I miss them. In my youth I knew hundreds of them, women and men who were around a century ago, and I took them for granted. I wish I had talked with them more. I wish I could ask them the questions I never thought to ask them when we were together.
Both my grandfathers served in the Great War but I rarely asked them about it.
Once I asked Grandpa Jenks what his army rank was and he scoffed.
“About as low as they could make me,” he said.
He was a corporal, which is not that low. He was a non-commissioned officer with responsibility and authority over others. What really bothered Grandpa, I think, is that he remained in the United States during the war, as did many soldiers and sailors.
I can understand that. At the height of the Vietnam War I was assigned to an Air Force Base in England where the primary menaces were black ice and left-turning roundabouts.
“There is always inequity in life,” President Kennedy famously said. “Some men are killed in a war and some men are wounded, and some men never leave the country, and some men are stationed in the Antarctic and some are stationed in San Francisco. It’s very hard in military or in personal life to assure complete equality. Life is unfair.” But I don’t think Grandpa Jenks ever accepted the unfairness.
Grandpa Emerson did serve outside the U.S., in France, during the Great War. Beyond that, I know very little. Pictures in old family albums show he was in the Navy, and at least one picture shows him in a shore patrol uniform with a sidearm. Thus I am tempted to imagine him bursting into Parisian bars, grabbing AWOL drunken sailors off the dance floor and throwing them in the brig. But what else did he do? What made him so willing to go back to his Minnesota farm after he had seen Paree? Who is the woman who is not Grandma in one of the pictures? Did he sow wild oats in Paris? Or was he the only doughboy in France who didn’t get laid?
I may not have asked him any of those questions, but I would have liked to know more about his Navy days, especially what he did in France. He did learn French in Paris, and later my mother learned French, perhaps so she could converse privately with her Dad.
Besides my grandfathers, there were scores of World War I veterans who enriched my life. When I was in the Air Force, the members Morrisville, N.Y. American Legion Post – many who served in 1917-1918 – would send me cards and miniature U.S. flags to thank me for my service, and to promise “to keep the fires of freedom burning here at home.” I would smile because it sounded like geriatric pyromania to me but I should have taken them more seriously. They were all war heroes in their way, and they were as old then as I am now.
And now they are all gone.
In 1970 when I was in college, I attended an anti-Vietnam War rally at Valley Forge National Park in Pennsylvania. Some people thought it was unpatriotic to hold a peace rally on such holy martial ground, but more than a thousand people participated. Jane Fonda, known then as “Hanoi Jane,” and Donald Sutherland, fresh from the filming of Klute, were there to address the crowd. And so were a half-dozen elderly gentlemen wearing American Legion caps.
I sat next to one of the legionnaires to see if he had wandered into the rally by mistake.
“This war is a terrible mistake,” said the man. “We fought the Kaiser because he had no right to march into other countries to subdue them. And the U.S. shouldn’t do it either.”
These old guys might not have been typical World War I vets, but they came to a controversial peace rally to take a stand.
And now they are all gone.
In 1990, when I worked for American Baptist Churches in the USA, I traveled to Johannesburg to interview South African Baptists for The American Baptist magazine. On the way back home I decided to spend a couple days in London to revisit some of my old haunts.
As I stepped out of my hotel room on one of those damp, cold London mornings that makes your bones ache, I encountered a parade of veterans of the Battle of Gallipoli who were marching to commemorate the 75th anniversary of that epic disaster.
Most of the marchers must have been in their nineties. Some were pushed in wheel chairs, but most walked stiffly in the cold, many of them dressed in their old uniforms with short pants. They walked in silence without a drumbeat, and we on the sidelines watched in silence. I thought they looked like phantoms of an ancient tragedy. I was deeply moved by their indomitable courage, both in 1915 and now.
And now they are all gone.
This month PBS The American Experience will offer a six-part documentary on The Great War.
For this we thank the precious but threatened Corporation for Public Broadcasting and viewers like you who make such memories possible.
The miscalculations that caused the Great War and the incalculable effects it had on the last hundred years cannot be overstated.
Even so, it would be surprising if this anniversary attracted a lot of attention because it was, after all, so long ago.
In my youth, there were still people who lived through it who could sit with us and tell us what a momentous event it was.
But the sad – if inevitable – thing is that now they are all gone.
There’s no point in complaining because every 150 years the world gets a whole new set of people and nothing can stop that.
But as the Great War anniversary commemorations continue, I will pause to remember fondly the persons I knew who lived through it, and to be profoundly grateful for their presence in my life.
I only wish my grandchildren could have known them.