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Over There

'One of the last': WWI vet recalls Great War

By Andrea Stone, USA TODAY
CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. — When the guns fell silent on Nov. 11, 1918, exactly 4,734,991 Americans had served in World War I. Four are known to be alive.
"I am one of the last," says Frank Woodruff Buckles, who at 106 is among the few living links — and perhaps the healthiest — to what was known as the Great War. "I didn't know it would be down to one to a million."

April 6 will mark the 90th anniversary of the United States' entry into World War I. The soldiers who went Over There thought they were fighting the "war to end all wars." It did not live up to its title. The United States has fought five major conflicts since then, including the current war in Iraq.

Type "World War I American casualties" into the Google search engine and it asks, "Did you mean World War II?" Yet this largely forgotten war has never been more relevant. The days of trench warfare and biplane dogfights are long gone, but the first industrialized war set the stage for all that came after. It marked the emergence of the United States as a superpower. The war in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ethnic cleansing, weapons of mass destruction, globalization, U.S. foreign policy and even women's rights and controversy over the treatment of returning veterans — all have roots in World War I.

"If you want to understand the world of today, don't start at 9/11/2001," Harvard historian Niall Ferguson says. "You need to go all the way back to August 1914," when the war began.

FIND MORE STORIES IN: Iraq | France | Britain | Europe | World War II | War | Frank | Arlington National Cemetery | World War I | Pershing
Buckles was a schoolboy then. When America got into the war in 1917, the 16-year-old went looking for adventure. "I was a snappy soldier," he says now, holding a sepia-toned photo of himself as a doughboy. "All gung-ho."

Such romantic spirit soon was ground up in the "no man's land" between the bloody trenches on Europe's Western Front. It was from there that the original "Unknown Soldier" was retrieved to be entombed in Arlington National Cemetery. Today, the nameless dead of World War II and Korea lie nearby. Their battles are more familiar to tourists watching the ritual changing of the guard on a recent afternoon. Few know that the original tomb, dedicated in 1921, contained a soldier from World War I.

Visitor Linda Mendenhall, 56, a former middle school history teacher from Greensboro, N.C., is an exception. As for her students, "They knew nothing about World War I. It was right up there with the Civil War and the Revolutionary War as ancient history to them," she says. "Their grandparents didn't fight in that war. They couldn't relate."

World War I "has such a dusty distance to it," Tulane University historian Douglas Brinkley says. "It's been eclipsed by World War II" in the nation's memory.

A global entanglement

In 1914, the world was ruled by empires: British, German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman. They were tied to each other through military alliances and secret pledges, but tensions were rising amid industrialization, global competition for resources and growing nationalism among ethnic minorities.

When a Bosnian Serb assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne in Sarajevo, that triggered a chain reaction of war declarations that engulfed all of Europe, and eventually countries as far as Japan.

The United States, long wary of foreign entanglements, stayed out of the fighting until April 1917. By then, German U-boat attacks on U.S. ships and evidence that Germany was wooing Mexico to its side persuaded President Woodrow Wilson to ask Congress to declare war. In words resembling those used later by President Bush to justify the Iraq war, Wilson said, "The world must be made safe for democracy."

In tiny Oakwood, Okla., where Buckles lived, patriotic posters appeared in the post office.

"The world was involved in it, and so was I," he says in a voice made halting and raspy by age.

Only 16, he walked into a Marine Corps recruiting office in Wichita and said he was 18. The recruiter didn't believe him and sent him away. The Navy rejected Buckles as flat-footed. Finally, an Army recruiter in Oklahoma City accepted him, but only after Buckles insisted that the only proof of his age was in a family Bible back in Missouri. The state didn't issue birth certificates in those days.

"I liked the Army right off," says Buckles, recalling how he enjoyed calisthenics.

He was in a hurry to get to the front. A sergeant told him to join the ambulance corps because the French, America's ally, were "begging for ambulances." At Fort Riley, Kan., he learned how to use his belt to cinch a wounded soldier to his back and carry him from a trench.

In December 1917, he sailed from Hoboken, N.J., on the RMS Carpathia, the ship that had rescued survivors of the Titanic after it sank in 1912. Buckles says he passed the time listening to the crew's accounts of the rescue. While in England, the young corporal drove dignitaries around.

He eventually got to France, but never close enough to the action to pull anyone from a trench.

In 1918, after the armistice was signed between the allies and Germany on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month — a date now commemorated as Veterans Day — Buckles stayed in Europe to escort prisoners of war back to Germany.

A curio cabinet in his farmhouse here holds a German military belt buckle with the words "Gott Mit Uns" — "God with us."

War's impact remains clear

When President Wilson and the victorious leaders of France and Britain met in Paris in 1919 to draft a peace treaty, they believed God was on their side.

They excluded the defeated powers from negotiations and produced the Treaty of Versailles, which slapped heavy reparations and placed blame for the war on Germany. Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party would rise to power by railing against the treaty.

When World War II began in 1939, "people saw these as two distinct events," says Eli Paul, director of interpretation at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City. Historians now believe they "were the same war with just a long intermission in between."

Ferguson, author of The Pity of War: Explaining World War One, says the legacy of that war is more enduring than that of World War II.

He notes that the Cold War that followed World War II has become less relevant to today's world. America's help in rebuilding Europe after World War II and the success of the European Union have knitted most of the continent together in peace.

World War I's impact continues to resonate. With the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, Britain and France drew up "arbitrary frontiers" in the Middle East, says Yale University historian Jay Winter, "usually made in an afternoon after tea without much thought to ethnic balance or viability of these countries."

Those borders remain and control the lives of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in Iraq and rival ethnic groups in Lebanon.

In 1917, before the war ended, Britain, which had wrested Palestine from the Turks, issued the Balfour Declaration. It expressed support for establishing "a national home for the Jewish people" there. The statement gave a major push to the founding of Israel.

"Most of our headaches in the Middle East today are a hangover from the great military binge of 1914-18," Ferguson says. He says the current war in Iraq can be traced to 1917, when British troops entered Baghdad proclaiming that they, like the United States in 2003, came as liberators, not conquerors. "They found themselves facing an insurgency," Ferguson says. "History is repeating itself."

Another disturbing historical parallel between now and then, says World War I historian Jennifer Keene, is controversy over the treatment of returning veterans. More than 200,000 U.S. soldiers suffered physical or mental injuries during World War I, but in 1919 only 217 had completed rehabilitation programs, she says. Later, when veterans marched on Washington to demand promised bonuses during the Depression, armed soldiers attacked them.

The episode was "a horrible black eye on the country and how we treat veterans," says Steve Berkheiser, a retired Marine general who heads the Kansas City museum. "Fast-forward to Walter Reed" and the scandal over substandard treatment of U.S. troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, he says. "There is a line of unfulfilled promises."

Pressure by Great War veterans helped persuade Congress to pass the G.I. Bill in 1944, Keene says. The bill helped create America's postwar middle class and paved the way for benefits still used to attract recruits.

Women's rights also got a boost from World War I. Women's contributions on the home front and overseas as nurses and telephone operators helped persuade Congress to give them the vote in 1920.

And the United States' industrial contribution to World War I, along with the bankrupting of Europe, led to the transfer of the world's financial capital from London to New York. It was the ascendance of U.S. economic and military might.

"That war created the American century," Winter says. "It was when the country became the broker of international affairs."

No memorial on the Mall

Frank Buckles says he "didn't give much thought" to the big picture. By the time he sailed home in January 1920, "The parades were over. Nobody asked me a question … even though I was still in uniform."

That scratchy wool uniform caught the eye of Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing at a reception in Oklahoma City soon after Buckles returned. The general, just back from commanding U.S. forces in France, shook Buckles' hand and asked where he was from, Buckles recalls.

When Buckles said he'd grown up on a farm in Harrison County, Mo., Pershing said, "Just 43 miles, as the crow flies, from Linn County, where I was born."

Buckles visited Pershing's grave on Veterans Day last year. The general is buried under a plain marble headstone in a little-visited corner of Arlington. America's top World War I general is not noted in the cemetery's tourist brochure.

Nor is there a national memorial to World War I on the National Mall in Washington, as there is to World War II.

The World War I museum in Kansas City, whose Liberty Memorial Tower was built with private donations soon after the war, is the closest thing to a national tribute.

The United States plans no special ceremonies to mark the passing of the last American veteran from World War I. The British, who have seven surviving World War I veterans, plan an elaborate memorial service featuring a symbolic empty coffin atop a gun carriage at Westminster Abbey after the last British survivor dies.

Buckles says it used to bother him that the nation quickly moved on after the war. But then, so did he.

The steamship business beckoned, and he traveled the world. In 1941, he was working in the Philippines when the Japanese invaded. He was captured and spent three years in a prisoner-of-war camp.

Later he moved to San Francisco, married, had a daughter and bought a 330-acre cattle farm here in West Virginia's panhandle, where his ancestors — some of whom he says go back to the Mayflower — had put down roots.

Sitting in a wingback chair, recalling distant names and dates with a clarity that would challenge someone half his age, Buckles says he was always "full of history."

And in more than a century of living it, he says, little compares to that first time the world went to war.

"The world began to change with World War I," he says. "Nothing like it ever happened before."

How the United States' major modern wars compare

War Duration Number served U.S. military deaths U.S. military wounded Major weapons introduced

World War I 1917-18{+1} 4.7 million 116,516 204,002 Airplane, tank, chemical warfare

World War II 1941-45{+1} 16.1 million 405,399 671,846 Amphibious assault ships, paratroops, atom bomb

Korean War 1950-53 5.7 million 54,246 103,284 Helicopters, first jet aircraft in combat

Vietnam War 1964-73 8.7 million 58,209 153,303 Rapid-fire assault rifles, laser-guided bombs, unmanned aerial vehicles

Persian Gulf War 1990-91 2.2 million 382 467 Spy satellites, stealth aircraft

Afghanistan and Iraq October 2001-present 1.5 million 3,599 25,455 Satellite-guided bombs
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