The centennial of World War I brought renewed attention to that event, which many historians say was the most significant and devastating war in the history of man, especially with regard to its impact on Europe. Here, we long ago relegated it to a dusty shelf for the most part.
I continue to be fascinated with World War I, more so than its successor. Maybe that is in part due to the story below.
When I was growing up, there were two sepia photographs of soldiers in my grandmother's bookcase. One was a photograph of her husband, my grandfather. The other was a photograph of a wistful looking young man who was always referred to as "Uncle Art."
Uncle Art was my grandfather's younger brother. Both were in the army during World War I.
My grandfather was mustered out quickly as he was blind in one eye from a carpentry accident. Uncle Art, however, served from 1917 until 1918, when he was killed in France.
The family story was that Uncle Art "got his head blown off" in battle. He was buried in a small country cemetery a little ways outside of town here, next to his parents.
Growing up, that was about all I ever knew about Uncle Art. Neither of my grandparents ever mentioned him.
Even without his being mentioned, it always seemed to me that World War I had a profound impact on my grandmother. Although all four of her sons served in World War II, World War I seemed the more immediate and more personal war in the household. There were the photos of the young soldiers, of course. And in the living room was a framed copy of the quintessential poem of that war, McCrae's "In Flanders Field:"
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
My grandmother would often recite that poem, especially on November 11th. It was one of the earliest poems I committed to memory as a result. To the end of her days, she always referred to November 11 as "Armistice Day," and made sure the flag flew from sunrise to sundown. Sometimes she would intone "on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" in referring to the significance of the day.
In recent years, I did a little bit of research and discovered a little bit more about Uncle Art. He entered the Army in 1917, a member of Company K, 166th Infantry, which was a part of the 42nd Division, known as the Rainbow Division. In all likelihood Uncle Art trained at Camp Mills, located on Long Island.
After training, Uncle Art shipped to France. I don't know whether he came back to Delaware before shipping out or went straight on by troopship to Europe. He made the rank of corporal.
The 42nd Division saw a great deal of action during World War I. Its first engagement was the Champagne-Marne offensive, which was the last great thrust of the German Army. The Germans were unsuccessful, in large part due to the influx of American troops to bolster the French army.
2058 soldiers of the 42nd Division died in that battle, which only lasted three days. Uncle Art fell on July 15, 1918, the first day of the engagement. There was a small death announcement in the local newspaper.
Uncle Art was buried in France initially. His body did not come home until three years later, when a number of bodies of American soldiers were exhumed and returned by ship to the United States for reburial.
Uncle Art came home on the SS Cantigny. The Cantigny, a troopship that wasn't built until after the end of World War I, primarily saw duty repatriating the doughboys after the war ended. After transporting the ones who survived, the Cantigny apparently repatriated those who did not. Its active military use ended in September, 1921, which was the same month that Uncle Art returned. He may have been on the last military voyage of that ship.
Uncle Art was buried in a small country cemetery about two miles outside of town. Looking at the little cemetery, I cannot fathom why his father picked a cemetery that at time would have been a fair drive from town. It was not a "new" cemetery even then, and to my knowledge my grandparents and my great-grandparents had no affiliation with the little church that operated it.
I went out there two days ago to visit the graves. There is Uncle Art alongside his mother and father. My grandfather, who was his brother, and my grandmother are close by. It is a quiet, mossy cemetery, ankle deep in leaves in the fall.
The War to End All Wars ended 91 year ago today on the "eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month." Uncle Art came home three years later. Alice, my great-grandmother, died a year after that. I have wondered whether her son's homecoming was the strain that killed her or the relief that released her?
No one is left to answer that question. No one is left who knew my great-grandmother. No one is left who can tell what her reaction was when her doughboy came home from France at long last.