Recollections Of A Century Ago

A distant relation who is immersed in – indeed, obsessed by – the family history emailed my wife the other day. He shared what he had discovered (totaling nearly seven pdf pages) about family and especially the military service of one ancestor. 100 years ago, this month, a great-great uncle of my wife’s was killed in Belgium in World War I:

Sad, horrid, awful.

As you see, I removed the soldier’s full name from that excerpt. Thinking my wife’s parents might have one somewhere, the relation wrote in part also seeking a photograph of him as an adult; but all anyone appears to have is one of him as a child of about five in a formal family photograph – everyone dressed smartly as was the norm of the day, his parents seated, his twin sister standing next to him, assorted older siblings (about 10 of them) also gathered around their parents, and no one is smiling. It’s the sort of late 19th century family photo many of us have seen 10,000 times…

Most every British family has a tale like his (or several of them). World War I (1914-1918) destroyed much of a generation of British, and other European, young men. The Passchendaele debacle offensive (“officially” Third Ypres) in which he died was one of the British army’s worst moments in the war – in a nightmare war full of so many other “worst” moments.

Further information on his Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire Regiment) is found at this site

The Long, Long Trail
The British Army in the Great War of 1914-1918

As Americans, we have little idea, really. In many ways, the American World War I – seen from today in particular – has become almost “legend” and is hugely overshadowed in our national memory by World War II. If Americans now think of World War I, it conjures up images initially mostly of General Pershing, the magnificent American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.) he commanded (nearly 2 million men and women – the latter, nurses and other support – most of whom had never been outside of the US before), and the immortal observation, “Lafayette, we are here“:

“America has joined forces with the Allied Powers, and what we have of blood and treasure are yours. Therefore it is that with loving pride we drape the colors in tribute of respect to this citizen of your great republic. And here and now, in the presence of the illustrious dead, we pledge our hearts and our honor in carrying this war to a successful issue. Lafayette, we are here.”

That statement was part of a longer speech given by Lt. Colonel Charles E. Stanton, standing alongside General Pershing, French Prime Minister Paul Painlevé and the other dignitaries, at the graveside of the Marquis de Lafayette and his wife, Marquise Adrienne, in Picpus Cemetery, Paris, France, July 4, 1917. Some who were present cited Pershing as having said “Lafayette, we are here.” But Pershing subsequently credited Stanton – who was a descendant of Edwin M. Stanton, Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of war.

[Graves of the Marquis de Lafayette (r), and the Marquise Adrienne de Lafayette, in Picpus Cemetery, Paris, France, 2010. Wikipedia. Public Domain.]

The French Marquis de Lafayette had volunteered to put his young, extremely privileged, life on the line (nearly being killed more than once), as well as contributed large amounts of money (out of his own pocket he paid to feed, clothe and arm American soldiers under his command), serving under George Washington in the American Revolution. The Marquise, although barely in her twenties, was a constant, and influential, pro-America voice back at home at Louis XVI’s court. The couple’s harrowing and tragic experiences during the later French Revolution merely added to Americans’ respect and gratitude to them.

There isn’t an American who knows anything about the Lafayettes who doesn’t choke up at least a little when they recall Stanton’s “Lafayette, we are here.”

The French archival web site ecpad has silent footage of the event:

But while the US had officially joined the war about three months earlier, in April, the nearly 100 million population US at that time had an army of perhaps 100,000. Nevertheless as soon as possible the US rushed off to France about 20,000 men from the “1st Division.” Some of them paraded through Paris on July 4.

When French onlookers heard the “1st US Division” was marching through, many thought, “The elite!” In reality, they were a hodgepodge of barely-trained, mostly new, soldiers. It took nearly a year after that to create the full US army that could take up about a third of the front and face the Germans without British and French help and instruction.

[Catalogue of official A.E.F. photographs, 1919: “One hundred and sixty-seventh Regiment Infantry, (formerly Fourth Regiment Infantry, Alabama National Guard), Second Battalion, Company F, Corpl. Howard Thompson holding pistol of German whom Sergt. James H. White killed in no man’s land with butt of his pistol. This occasion being one where a patrol of 5 men met 10 Germans in no man’s land on March 7, 1918. Corpl. Thompson went into no man’s land in daytime and found pistol of the dead German. Ancerviller, France, March 11, 1918.” Library of Congress. Public Domain.]

Look at the confident, satisfied expressions on those American soldiers in that photo from March 1918.

Similarly, note these men below – in a photo taken probably in early to mid September, in eastern France:

[Group portrait of soldiers of an American patrol that caught a German gun crew in the Saint-Mihiel salient, France, during World War I. They pose behind a brand new German machine gun which they captured. (Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images) Public Domain.]

British and French soldiers had not really had that sort of a look since probably 1914 – assuming they were by 1918 even still alive from 1914.

The US participated gradually more in the fighting from late-1917 until it was finally involved in full-scale battle by June 1918. When in September over half a million Americans, in a mostly US operation, took the offensive in Saint-Mihiel, that was the beginning of the end for the Germans. They could still fight the British and the French to a standstill, but the fresh Americans pounding them now as well started to become just too much for them to withstand and within weeks they began asking through various “channels” if the Allies wanted to talk terms, leading eventually to the November 11 armistice.

However, by that armistice many American soldiers’ experiences of the war had become much like those of the British and the French. The US had by then suffered some 120,000 military deaths (about 80,000 of whom died in actual combat in France). That harsh reality helped contribute to Americans coming to believe, “The war’s over, let Europe look after its own problems again.”

[Red Cross poster, 1919. Library of Congress. Public Domain.]

Or perhaps put another way, “Lafayette, we’re outta here now.” The three million US army that helped overcome the Germans was slashed to barely 100,000 again within five years. In foreign policy, the country started to embrace a “disengaged” worldview that inadvertently may have contributed to the rise of Hitler and to World War II.