July 18th, 2014 | No Comments
What was it like?
What was it like in the trenches? What was it like in all those places whose names have faded in the dusty recesses of memory, places such as Ypres and Gallipoli, Verdun and the Marne? What was it like to fight the war that was supposed to make the world safe for democracy?
There’s no one left to ask.
The Great War has almost passed from living memory. The veterans have slipped away, one by one, their obituaries marking the end of the line in country after country.
And now, Frank Buckles, who died Sunday at age 110, the last U.S. veteran. Missouri boy. Sixteen years old, he lied about his age to get into the Army and badgered his superiors until they sent him to the French front with an ambulance unit, one of 4,734,991 Americans who served in the military during World War I.
All of them gone. None to tell us about a brutish, bloody conflict that set new standards for horror.
No one to answer the question: What was it like?
116,000 Americans die
World War I started with the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 a tripwire for cataclysm.
When the Americans entered the war in April 1917, the Europeans had been hammering away at each other for three bloody years.
Man had invented an array of new tools for killing, and it seemed that all of Europe had become a proving ground.
By the time the Germans agreed to an unconditional surrender in a railway carriage at Compiegne on Nov. 11, 1918, the carnage was almost beyond comprehension:
Nearly 20 million civilian and military casualties. More than 116,000 American dead, including more than 53,000 killed in combat.
It was a toll so horrifying that the world would spend the next decade devising a treaty to forever “condemn recourse to war for the solution of international controversies, and renounce it as an instrument of national policy in their relations with one another.”
Frank Woodruff Buckles was born Feb. 1, 1901, on a farm near Bethany, Mo., and moved with his family to a farm in Oklahoma’s Dewey County as a teenager.
He was only 16
When the United States entered the war, Buckles was eager to enlist even though he was only 16.
After being rejected by Marine and Navy recruiters, Buckles tried the Army. When the recruiter asked to see his birth certificate, Buckles said Missouri didn’t keep birth records when he was born and the only record was what was written in the family Bible.
His word was good enough for the Army.
Buckles enlisted on Aug. 14, 1917, and went through basic training at Fort Riley, Kan.
He shipped off to England in December 1917 on the RMS Carpathia, the ocean liner that had rescued survivors of the Titanic in 1912.
Initially stationed in England, where he drove dignitaries around, he successfully hounded his officers for an assignment in France. He never got close to the action. But, as he told columnist George F. Will in 2008, “I saw the results.”
Buckles later spent more than three years in a Japanese POW camp as a civilian in the Philippines during World War II.
Only 2 are left
Only two known veterans of World War I remain: Florence Green, 110, in Britain and Claude Choules, 109, in Australia. There are about 2 million U.S. veterans of World War II still alive.
Just before his 108th birthday in 2009, Buckles told The Philadelphia Inquirer that he always knew he would live a long life:
His father died at 97, a sister at 104. And other relatives on his mother’s side of the family hit the century mark.
As for living long enough to be the last U.S. military veteran of World War I, he grinned and said, “If it has to be somebody, it might as well be me.”
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