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“Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”

– General of the Army Douglas MacArthur

April 6, 2017 marks the 100th anniversary commemorating America’s formal entrance into World War I. With approximately sixty-five million troops deployed between Allied forces and Central Powers from over forty countries and more than eight million deaths and twenty-one million casualties, the toll the war took across the globe was devastating. U.S. losses, compared to many of the other countries who joined battle, were surprisingly low.

President Woodrow Wilson requested a declaration of war against Germany before a joint session of Congress on April 2, 1917. Two days later the joint session (U.S. Senate: 82 to 6; U.S. House of Representatives: 373 to 50) voted in support of the measure.

This decision broke America’s neutrality. Although there were numerous reasons for President Woodrow Wilson’s push to declare war, two factors played key roles:

Sussex Pledge (May 4, 1916)

Wilson’s primary reason was the breaking of Germany’s pledge, which was to suspend unrestricted submarine warfare. In effect, this served to protect unarmed passenger ships and to allow merchant vessel enemy crews to abandon ship prior to attack. The note of rescindment was presented to Robert Lansing, U.S. Secretary of State, by Count Johann von Bernstorff, German Ambassador to the United States, on January 31, 1917, effective the following day.

Zimmerman Telegram (published March 1, 1917)

Secondary was Germany’s attempt to coax Mexico into an alliance and declare war on the United States. The Zimmerman Telegram was intercepted in January of 1917 and deciphered by British Intelligence. Arthur Zimmermann, the German foreign secretary, instructed Count Johann von Bernstorff, German Ambassador to the United States, to offer substantial financial aid against the United States if Mexico became a German ally. Wilson became aware of the contents of the telegram on February 26, 1917, and proposed the U.S. start arming its ships. On March 1, 1917, the Zimmerman Telegram made newspaper headlines across America, effectively turning the tide of public opinion against Germany.

In 2011, just over five years shy of America’s one 100 year anniversary of its initial involvement, Corporal Frank Woodruff Buckles, the last living U.S. World War I veteran died at the age of 110. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. Buckles was one of over four million U.S. military deployed from 1917 to the end of the war on November 11, 1918. His story, unlike so many of his comrades, will live on through the ages.

Date of Death Name Age Country
September 14, 1993 Danilo Dajković 98 Montenegro[1]
November 6, 1995 Matsuda Chiaki 99 Japan[1]
April 11, 1999 Wallace Pike 99 Newfoundland[1]
March 30, 2000 Norman Kark 102 South Africa[1]
September 9, 2000 Senekerim Arakelian 98 Armenia[1]
January 12, 2002 Robert Francis Ruttledge 103 Indian Empire[1]
March 5, 2002 Zhu Guisheng 106 China[1]
February 13, 2003 Bright Williams 105 New Zealand[1]
May 5, 2003 José Ladeira 107 Portugal[1]
August 9, 2003 Alois Vocásek 107 Czechoslovakian Legions[1]
October 9, 2003 Yod Sangrungruang 106 Siam[1]
June 22, 2004 Aleksa Radovanović 103 Serbia[1]
September 16, 2004 Cyriel Barbary 105 Belgium[1]
March 4, 2006 August Bischof 105 Austrian Empire[2]
January 9, 2007 Gheorghe Pănculescu 103 Romania[1]
January 1, 2008 Erich Kästner 107 German Empire[2]
January 12, 2008 Stanisław Wycech 105 Polish forces[2]
April 2, 2008 Yakup Satar 110 Ottoman Empire[2]
May 27, 2008 Franz Künstler 107 Hungarian Kingdom[2]
October 26, 2008 Delfino Borroni 110 Italy[1]
November 20, 2008 Pierre Picault 109 France[1]
December 26, 2008 Mikhail Krichevsky 111 Russian Empire[1]
May 13, 2009 Waldemar Levy Cardoso 108 Brazil[1]
June 3, 2009 John Campbell Ross 110 Australia[1]
February 18, 2010 John Babcock 109 Canada[1]
February 27, 2011 Frank Buckles 110 United States[1]
February 4, 2012 Florence Green 110 United Kingdom[1]
[1]Allies  [2]Central Powers

MacArthur’s quote about soldiers just fading away holds a profound truth. Their stories, unless recorded, slowly vanish as the years pass and those who knew them also succumb to time. Soon, all that remains are their names and dates of birth and death, with possibly a notation of their years of service and rank. Their stories become part of a distant past that eventually becomes forgotten.

This loss of human element turns the history of a war into a dry recitation of facts and figures. These fundamental components of human emotions, thoughts, strengths and weaknesses are key to future generations understanding, not only of the conflict, but how the conflict shaped who we are today. It is the people who fought and sacrificed, the friends and families who loved them and the peoples of nations that stood behind them that make history come alive and are the true measure of a war’s successes and failures.

Like Buckles, not all their stories have been lost. Among the most famous was the conscientious objector, Sergeant Alvin C. York. One of the most highly decorated heroes of World War I, York’s heroics where honored with multiple awards and honors, countless stories, a biography and a movie.

But for every story that remains, far more have irretrievably vanished. In the words of Gary Shteyngart, “The fading light is us, and we are, for a moment so brief (…) beautiful.” Do not let this become their truth.


About Jenifer Chrisman

Jenifer joined the MWR Marketing team in 2011 as graphic designer. In 2014, she went back to her roots when she joined the Fort Gordon FYI Magazine team as a writer, along with her designer duties. As of 2015, she has created a series of briefs about the history, culture and traditions of the military called Culture.Mil, as well as writing various other pieces, including her favorite ... A Thin Line Of Many Colors.

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