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