Monday, November 12, 2007

Over There and Gone Forever

Sunday marked the 89th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I. At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the guns finally fell silent along the western front, bringing the "War to End All Wars" to a close.

Almost a century later, the horrors of that conflict have receded into history. In an era when less than two hundred combat deaths a year (in Afghanistan) brings anguish and talk of military failure, we forget the carnage that was the Great War. Over a quarter-million dead at Verdun in barely 10 months; nearly 20,000 British dead on a single day--July 1, 1916--during the first hours of the Somme offensive.

If the passage of time has dulled the horrors of that war, it has also eclipsed our own role in the conflict. More than two million young Americans were shipped to Europe in 1917-1918, providing the reinforcements that bolstered the allied cause, and (eventually) spearheaded the final attacks that forced the Germans to accept the armistice.

Ten decades later, only one of the doughboys sent "over there" is still with us. In today's edition of The New York Times, writer Richard Rubin profiles Frank Buckles, America's only surviving World War I veteran who served overseas. Mr. Buckles, who lied about his age to enlist, never made it to France; his unit was posted in Britain, where he guarded German POWs during his tour of duty.

In his op-ed, Rubin describes Mr. Buckles' life as extraordinary, and it's hard to disagree. After being discharged from the Army at the end of World War I, he returned to civilian life. In early 1942, he was the manager for a U.S. steamship company in Manila when the Japanese Army occupied the city. Mr. Buckles became a POW and spent 39 months in captivity before being liberated in late 1945. He later settled in West Virginia and became a farmer, a vocation he pursued until well after his 100th birthday. Today, at age 106, he is one of only three surviving U.S. veterans of World War I. The others were still in basic training when the war ended and never made it overseas.

As Mr. Rubin reminds us, the passing of those remaining veterans will mean that later generations will lose their last human contact with events that scarred and shaped a century. He writes:

It’s hard for anyone, I imagine, to say for certain what it is that we will lose when Frank Buckles dies. It’s not that World War I will then become history; it’s been history for a long time now. But it will become a different kind of history, the kind we can’t quite touch anymore, the kind that will, from that point on, always be just beyond our grasp somehow. We can’t stop that from happening. But we should, at least, take notice of it.

On what may be the last Armistice Day for the generation that fought the war, we should take notice, indeed.


DebbieKinIL said...

I heard a piece on the radio with him speaking. Truly a piece of history. And he is 106 years old.

Bill Befort said...

It's easy to forget how deadly WWI was for our soldiers in the relatively brief time they were engaged. Virtually all 53,500 American battle deaths came in the 23 weeks or so between Belleau Wood in early June 1918 and the Armistice: that's over 2,300 deaths per week, or 330 a day. The loss rate per thousand rose even as the number of U.S. divisions engaged grew; see the graphic at
/stats/graphs/fig020.gif .