When J. Russell Coffey passed away last month in an Ohio nursing home, it made national headlines. Mr. Coffey, a retired college professor, was one of only three remaining U.S. veterans of World War I. With his death--at the age of 109--there are now only two surviving doughboys among the million who served in the "war to end all wars."
The recent passing of Louis de Cazenave attracted even wider attention. Mr. de Cazenave, who died last Monday at the age of 110, was one of two surviving French veterans of the Great War, which claimed the lives of 1.4 million of his countrymen. Newpapers around the world reported de Cazenave's passing, which prompted a statement from French President Nicholas Sarkozy:
"His death is an occasion for all of us to think of the 1.4 million French who sacrificed their lives during this conflict, for the 4.5 million wounded, for the 8.5 million mobilized," Sarkozy observed.
Among the handful of World War I soldiers who lived into the 21st Century, Mr. de Cazenave also held the distinction of being a combat veteran. He participated in the Battle of the Somme in 1916, which claimed the lives of more than one million troops, and later served with an artillery unit before the war ended. None of the surviving American veterans of the war served in combat and only one of them deployed overseas before the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918.
By comparison, Erich Kaestner received almost no attention when he passed away in a Cologne, Germany, nursing home on New Year's Day. Mr. Kaester, who was 107 at the time of his passing, was best known as a long-serving judge in Hanover, receiving the Merit Cross for his work on the bench. Germany's president also recognized Kaester for his 75-year marriage to his wife, Maria, who passed away at the age of 102 in 2003.
According to the Associated Press, it wasn't until someone read his obituary--and updated a Wikipedia entry--that Kaester's passing took on added significance. According to at least three German media outlets, Kaester was (at the time of his death) the country's last World War I veteran, although that claim is difficult to verify.
After losing both world wars--and stung by the shame of Nazi genocide for more than six decades--Germany has no governmental mechanism for tracking veterans of those conflicts. The country's Defense Ministry, it's military archive and war graves commission told the AP that they have no records on other surviving soldiers from World War I.
“That is the way history has developed,” Kaestner’s son, Peter Kaestner, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “In Germany, in this respect, these things are kept quiet — they’re not a big deal.”
Born in 1900, Kaestner entered the military in 1918, shortly after his graduation from high school. After completing training, he was sent to the Western Front but never entered combat, according to Kaestner's son. He rejoined the military in 1939 and served as a ground support officer for the Luftwaffe, primarily in France.
Toward the end of his life, Erich Kaestner's status as one of the last surviving World War I veteran was apparently better known in the United States than his native Germany. According to Peter Kaestner, his father routinely received requests for autographs from the U.S., but he never responded.
With Kaestner's passing, the only remaining German with military service during World War I is Franz Kunstler, who fought with the Austro-Hungarian Army during that conflict. While an ethnic German, Kunstler spent the first half of his life in Hungary, and didn't move to Germany until after World War II. There are unconfirmed reports that Mr. Kunstler passed away late last week.
The deaths of Russell Coffey, Louis de Cazenave and Erich Kaestner serve as poignant reminders that the end of an era is rapidly approaching. Of the millions who served in uniform between 1914-1918, only a handful remain--just 15 by one recent count.
While some of the surviving vets have been interviewed by historians, scores who passed before them never had that opportunity. "We have lost a chance--forever," der Spiegel wrote last week, in noting Kaestner's passing. It's a sentiment that echoes from both sides of the trenches, almost 90 years after the guns fell silent.