When I was a small child in the early 1960s, the impact of World War II was still being felt. My parents were children during that war, but slightly older adults, including one of my uncles, had fought. Most communities and far too many families had lost loved ones in the war, and everyone remembered.
Conversely, World War I, though it happened earlier in the same century, might as well have been ancient history. It just wasn’t talked about, even though everyone age 60 or older would have remembered it.
The only person I knew who had fought in that war was my great-Uncle Wyatt in Georgia. Uncle Wyatt had been wounded in the “Great War” and was in a wheelchair. I thought he was fascinating with his Civil War money and the bullet casings and Indian arrowheads he had found. To me, he seemed mysterious and heroic, but in reality he was sick and sad, and he took his own life before I turned 10.
Another WWI vet was part of our family lore, though this incident took place in the mid-1950s before I was born. My dad, who was only 19 at the time, came to visit my mom’s family for the first time in rural Indiana. Dad was visiting on approval and wanted to make a good impression. What dad didn’t know was that my grandmother had a neighbor named Russell who had served in WWI – and he was clearly still traumatized. The man would drink to excess and then start shooting his shotgun at random targets.
The day after dad arrived he went to take a shower, which was rigged up in an outbuilding (because my grandmother’s house didn’t have an indoor bathroom at that time.) Well, the neighbor started shooting, and shouting, and he was close. All of a sudden, my dad streaked out of the shower, towel in hand, and raced into the house, covering himself as he ran.
He wasn’t harmed, but my aunts relished trotting that story out through the years.
Uncle Wyatt and Russell from Indiana were just two of the millions of World War I veterans from America and Europe who never recovered, mentally or physically, from their service.
As various events are being held to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War, it’s instructive to ponder how the world was turned upside down during those four years from 1914 to 1918.
• Most sources agree upward of 16 million soldiers and civilians, European and American, were killed during the war. Up to 24 million more were wounded.
• The war was fought in trenches, which must have been simply horrific, and modern weapons of destruction like poison gas and airplanes were used for the first time.
• Although the U.S. only actively fought in the war for about eight months, more than 100,000 American soldiers died, and an additional 300,000 plus were wounded.
• Layered on top of the fighting was the great influenza pandemic of 1918-19 that killed around 50 million people worldwide. In fact, more American soldiers died during 191718 from flu than fighting.
• In 1917, the Bolshevik revolution was launched in Russia, and that civil war raged simultaneously with the pandemic and world war.
To get a better sense of what that time was like, I recommend two books we read in a long-ago book club. Both provide fascinating and heartbreaking windows into those years. The first is “Pale horse, pale rider” by Katherine Ann Porter, a short novel about the pandemic. The second is “A very long engagement” by Sebastien Japrisot, a story of war and unending devotion.
“This is a war to end all wars.” – President Woodrow Wilson, 1917.
The writer is publisher and editor of the Alexandria Times.