Expressions of time are often used to reflect pending deadlines. “It’s almost the twelfth hour” or “It’s almost midnight,” both meaning that time is running out. Sadly, when we apply these metaphors to the few living veterans of World War I we realize that it is very close to the final tolling of the clock referring to the little time these few very old soldiers have left on earth. It will not be very long before we read in newspapers and other media that the “Last American World War One Veteran is Dead”
Veterans of World War One, Inc., the congressionally chartered American World War I veterans organization in America, reported in the final edition (Jan 2000) of their newspaper, The Torch, that as of 1 January 2000 there were 1,179 living American veterans of World War I. The U. S Department of Veterans Affairs estimated in September 2004 that only 100 World War I veterans remained alive. At this date of writing it is reported that a total of 37 veterans of World War I are still living (of the 65 million men mobilized by all of the belligerents) worldwide, and that five of them are American veterans. It will be only a few years from now when we will see a newspaper headline reading “LAST AMERICAN WORLD WAR ONE VET DIES.” Even as this article is being written there are more and more frequent The last veteran of our past wars died at the following ages: War of American Independence – 109; War of 1812 – 105; Mexican War – 98; Union and Confederate veterans of the American Civil War at the ages of 109 and 112, respectively; Spanish/American War – 106; Indian Wars – 101. The average age at death for the last veteran of all of America’s past wars was 105 years.
The average age of our soldiers, sailors and marines of 1917-1918 is now 107 years of age and they are “going West” at the alarming rate. All of them live in nursing homes and require constant care. To use a metaphor–the last dry, aged leaf is about to fall from what was once a full tree. In a few more years they will all have “gone West.”
The boys in olive drab, navy blue and forest green are now but a token handful of very old men, full of sentiment, reflecting back on full lives that will remain alive forever through the stories they have shared with us. When the last of that grand generation of men has gone on to join his comrades it will be like a light beacon going out. However, the light will remain shining through our remembrance of these brave men.
We see them today, in faded sepia-toned photographs, with their high-crowned felt hats, their spiral puttees and high-collared wool tunics. The songs they sang, “Over There,” “Good Morning, Mr. Zip-Zip,” “K-K-K Katy,”– the weapons they used, the bolt-action 30/06 Springfield repeating rifle, the Model 1917 Enfield rifle– their very concept of the world of 1917-1918–are nothing more than idle curiosities to most of us today.
The Great War, as it was initially known, was indeed global, involving twenty countries on five continents. Today, among most Americans, the war is only vaguely recalled, a misty promontory obscured by a war that preceded it and the one that followed it, the Civil War and World War II. In surviving images it has something to do with poppies, ghostly figures in gas masks, a rousing tune, “Over There,” and a fading photograph in an album of an unbelievably young grandfather or great-grandfather wearing a doughboy’s tin helmet and a collar that appears to have been choking him.
It took a special type of man to fight in World War I, and many of the soldiers did so voluntarily. Some did not go voluntarily–72 percent of the AEF was composed of draftees. During the war almost three million men were denied any choice about service in the armed forces of the United States; they were simply drafted at their numbers came up. At the time of the Armistice in 1918 there were almost five million American men under arms both at home and overseas.
Many historians have said that you probably would not be able to get succeeding generations of young men to fight such an abysmal war again. It was a war considered to have been without equal for the sheer brutality inflicted on the soldiers who were fighting in a comparatively confined area for four long years. The majority of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) arrived in France late in the war and conducted large scale military operations only from September to November of 1918. Fortunately, they did not have to get involved in the war of the trenches which had gone on for over three long years, and which killed off an entire generation of their Allies, the French and British–the American war was fought out in the open.
The American soldiers poured into the ports of France during 1917 and 1918. The American Expeditionary Force arrived with a determination to show the world that they were better than any soldiers that Europe had ever produced, and this definitely included the Germans.
They were from all parts of America and were of the most varied origins. The AEF is recorded as having spoken and written about fifty different languages! Most of our immigrant soldiers could barely speak English! The AEF, like all armies, spoke its own language, and with great fluency. It was a mixture of certain linguistic spices and savors that gave their speech a certain pungency, including references, on many occasions, to definite illegitimacy and canine ancestry on the part of the “Boches”(Germans) as well as numerous colorful Anglo-Saxon monosyllables of their own.
The average American soldier was not the introspective Russian novelist that certain war fiction would have us to believe. He appears not to have been concerned at all about the status of his soul, nor the many and muddled causes that had dragged him out of an Alabama back-lot or from a New York City push-cart to make the world safe for anything in particular. Certainly his primary, and frequently his only, questions in regard to the murderous trade to which he found himself apprenticed were:
(a) “When do we eat?”
(b) “Where do we go from here?”
(c) “What outfit, buddy?”
They were poorly trained, ill equipped, and had to rely upon the French and the English for all of their artillery, tanks, horses, and for a large part of their food, but even these handicaps did little to stifle their spirit and their enthusiasm. The Americans were young, healthy, always clean-shaven, and of a different appearance and demeanor than the Europeans, and they radiated confidence in themselves.
And, according to the unanimous testimony of experts, psychologists, psychiatrists, ministers of religion, social workers and all of the earnest men and women who were associated with it and studied it, the American Army in France was at once the sanest, the soberest and the least criminal body of men ever gathered together as any army in human history. The French civilians and soldiers alike, and not upon affection and prejudice in its behalf, felt similarly about the AEF.
They made themselves at home in France and established a reputation with and among the French people as having been kindly, happy, very ingenious, and very helpful to everyone. They somehow hurdled the language barriers and made friends with the peasant family with whom they were billeted and with every child that was within reaching distance.
They came, roughly two million of them, infantrymen, artillerymen, machine-gunners, railroad men, loggers, engineers, mechanics, and constructors, and almost overnight they changed the face of France. Nothing astonished them and nothing was regarded as an insurmountable obstacle. Mishaps and mistakes there were but the lessons were quickly learned.
The AEF was initially a little bit unsure of itself before it was put to the test on the field of battle. They were prematurely thrown onto the battlefields during the extreme crisis period of the war in mid-1918, when the morale of the Allies had sagged to an all-time low, and when the Germans were on a spree of victories and came very close to winning the war. At one point Paris was but 40 kilometers away from the German front lines and was almost theirs for the taking, and might have been except for American intervention at Chateau-Thierry, northwest of Chateau-Thierry, at Belleau Wood and along the Marne River.
The Americans showed the utmost of resolve, determination, and frequently recklessness on the battlefield. It was this last factor that accounted for most of the proportionately high casualty rate of the AEF, and which greatly saddened the soldiers when the final tally was made of 53,500 of their “buddies” killed in action. They knew that Death had enlisted (or been drafted, as the case may be) with them, but of course they felt only an impersonal interest in the matter. Every infantryman and cannoneer knew that somebody would be mustered out. But each one knew that he would not be the one. The psychology of battles is that somebody else’s widow is going to collect the insurance.
The assistance of the Americans at this time was of incalculable value. It is admitted now by just about all historians that, although the Americans did not physically win the war, they did provide the boost in Allied morale which enabled the Entente to surge forward to final victory in 1918.
When asked if they could capture Cantigny, the Americans said they could, and they did. The same applied to Belleau Wood, Blanc Mont ridge, the St.Mihiel salient, and to the Argonne forest. The most experienced and hardened French cried, Rien les arreste–“Nothing stops them! Nothing stops them!”
The deeds of the old AEF on the field of battle are of such brilliant stature that they will ever be remembered by our sister country, La Belle France, and wondered at by every generation that has succeeded that of those who went to France to “make the world safe for democracy.”
Some years ago, and in cities and towns all across America, a few aged World War vets would gather together for monthly meetings and pot-luck lunches of their “Last Man Clubs.” These meetings are now extinguished as their membership, originally begun in the 1920’s and 30’s with some 40 to 50 vets, dwindled down to nothing. There were stories appearing in newspapers all over America relating to the passing of final members belonging to the “Last Man Clubs” composed of veterans of “the war to end all wars.” At their final meetings there would be only one or two very old and frail veterans still `present and accounted for’ when the final roll was called. Now there are not enough doughboy veterans left alive to form an infantry squad.
The old soldier’s knurled and trembling fingers would gingerly caress the aged bottle of French wine which was bought by all when their club was formed, as it now represents his buddies who have already answered their final roll call. The once new wine is supposed to be opened by the sole survivor of their club at which time a toast will be drunk to those ex-soldiers of the AEF who have already gone over the horizon into history. The wine has by now probably been turned into vinegar by the passage of time. None the less, the bottle is still looked upon fondly by the rheumy eyes of a very old man.
What does the ancient soldier see in the glass of the bottle–the faces of the men who went with him into Belleau Wood or into the Argonne Forest? Whatever he sees and feels it is enough to cause a tear or two to course down his wrinkled cheeks. A little later he will slowly smile, for he is no longer saddened by the thought that very soon they will all be together once again on some distant field. From the shadow of his memory comes the sound of distant battlefields, the crash of cannon, crack of rifles, the rattle of machine guns. Now comes the sound of voices from men on that battleground, calling to him. The now fragile man will become young and strong as he once was, and will take his place in the long ranks, look to the right and left at his buddies of yesteryear, smile happily to himself and reply with a loud and clear “here” when his name is called.
The American Expeditionary Forces of World War I will now all be gathered together in the Valhalla of heroes. The last survivor of a magnificent generation will have left us forever in body but never in spirit. The memory of the AEF of 1917-1918 who went to France will remain with us. They will know that we care and that their service and sacrifice is remembered by those for whom they fought.
So, in the very early years of the 1920’s, and when the last Doughboy was returned from occupation duty in Germany and mustered out of the service, the AEF ceased to exist and its history was brought to a close. But the deep feeling of loyalty and comradeship, strengthened through long months of deprivation and cemented continually by memories of hardships and dangers shared, can never be “mustered out” as long as one of AEF veterans still lives.