|Across the Fence: Armistice Day|
|November 11, 2016 M. Timothy Nolting|
FROM THE WHITE HOUSE: November 11, 1919 President Woodrow Wilson:
“A year ago today our enemies laid down their arms in accordance with an armistice which rendered them impotent to renew hostilities, and gave to the world an assured opportunity to reconstruct its shattered order and to work out in peace a new and juster set of international relations. The soldiers and people of the European Allies had fought and endured for more than four years to uphold the barrier of civilization against the aggressions of armed force. We ourselves had been in the conflict something more than a year and a half. – With splendid forgetfulness of mere personal concerns, we remodeled our industries, concentrated our financial resources, increased our agricultural output, and assembled a great army, so that at the last our power was a decisive factor in the victory. We were able to bring the vast resources, material and morale, of a great and free people to the assistance of our associates in Europe who had suffered and sacrificed without limit in the cause for which we fought. Out of this victory there arose new possibilities of political freedom and economic concert. The war showed us the strength of great nations acting together for high purposes, and the victory of arms foretells the enduring conquests which can be made in peace when nations act justly and in furtherance of the common interests of men. To us in America the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service, and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of nations.”
One year earlier, at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month the ‘War to End All Wars’ came to a close. November 11, 1918 marked the ending of that horrific conflict and became known as Armistice Day. The treaty, between the Allies and Germany was signed at Compiegne, France and the whole world celebrated. Had it been a true and lasting worldwide armistice it would likely still be called Armistice Day. But sadly, it seems that it actually spawned a proliferation of world conflicts, and so to honor all veterans who have served in subsequent wars as well, it was renamed Veterans Day by Congressional decree on June 1, 1954.
From the beginning of that First World War, in June of 1914 until its end, nearly 11-million soldiers were either killed or listed as missing in action and almost 25-million were wounded. Trench warfare, heavy artillery bombardment and the introduction of armored tanks left many, dead and wounded, on the battlefield. There were hundreds, perhaps even thousands of soldiers that were never recovered or rendered unrecognizable. And there were 53-thousand soldiers from the United States who gave their lives in defense of our European Allies.
In addition to the soldiers who lost their lives in battle, it is recorded that more than 2-million civilians died as collateral casualties of war and nearly 6-million more died of disease and starvation resulting from the terrible destruction of war; that’s more than 15,000 casualties a day.
In 2011, the 93rd anniversary year of that historic armistice, the last WWI veteran from the United Sates, Frank Buckles aged 110 years, died on February 27th. Two months later, the last known WWI combatant from British troops, Claude Choules died on May 5th in Australia, he also was 110 years old.
Frank Buckles was born on February 1, 1901 in Bethany, Missouri. He attended school in Walker, Missouri until 1916 when he and his family moved to Oklahoma. Less than one year after American forces joined the Allies to defend Europe from the German invasion, on August 14, 1917, Frank enlisted in the U.S. Army. He had been turned down by the Marine Corps, who claimed he was too small, and the U.S. Navy who declared that flat feet disqualified him from service. Although the Army accepted him as an adult, despite his boyish, 16-year-old appearance, the recruiting sergeant suggested that a middle name might be helpful. Frank chose the name of his uncle and so registered as “Frank Woodruff Buckles” and was sent to Fort Riley, Kansas for basic training.
Frank was eager to get to the front lines and his drill sergeant suggested volunteering for a position driving ambulances and so it was that after basic, Frank shipped out to Europe aboard the RMS Carpathia which was then being used as a troop transport. The RMS Carpathia was the ship that rescued the survivors of the Titanic in 1912. One year after transporting Frank Buckles and his fellow soldiers, in July 1918, the Carpathia was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland.
Arriving at the front, Frank drove ambulances and motorcycles for the U.S. Army’s 1st Fort Riley Casual Detachment. In one of many, much later interviews, Corporal Buckles recalled his service as an ambulance driver.
“There was never a shortage of blown-up bodies that needed to be rushed to the nearest medical care. The British and French troops were in bad shape – even guys my age looked old and tired. After three years of living and dying inside a dirt trench, you know the Brits and French were happy to see us “doughboys.” Every last one of us Yanks believed we’d wrap this thing up in a month or two and head back home for harvest. In other words, we were the typical, cocky Americans no one wants around, until they need help winning a war.”
While serving in France, Frank saw firsthand the devastating impact of war on civilians and did what he could to help the starving children he saw there. After the Armistice in 1918 Frank was assigned to escort German prisoners of war back to Germany. In 1919 he was promoted to the rank of Corporal and later honorably discharged.
During the Second World War, Frank Buckles was employed by the White Star shipping company and was in Manila when the Japanese invaded the Philippines. He remained in Manila to help with the resupply of American troops and was captured in January of 1942 by the Japanese forces. He spent the next three years as a civilian prisoner in the Santo Tomas and Los Banos prison camps. Despite his own malnourishment and starvation the prison guards allowed him to cultivate a small garden where he grew vegetables that helped to feed children who were also imprisoned there.
When Frank was in his 100-plus years he was often interviewed by various newspapers and magazines. In one such interview he remarked that he believed the United States should not go to war, “unless it’s an emergency,” and replied, “If your country needs you, you should be right there, that is the way I felt when I was young, and that’s the way I feel today.”
On February 27, 2011, Frank Woodruff Buckles died of natural causes 26 days after his 110th birthday. He was buried, with full military honors, at Arlington National Cemetery, his flag draped coffin borne to the gravesite on a horse-drawn caisson.
Frank had lived to experience the war to end all wars, and also witnessed those tragic conflicts that followed.
The armistice that ended World War II was signed on September 2, 1945 after 407-thousand Americans had given their lives. All other nations involved in that war sacrificed more than 25-million of their young men and women. 31-million civilians were killed in military actions and worldwide, 28-million died of disease and starvation in their war-torn countries.
The Korean armistice was signed on July 27, 1953 at a cost of nearly 1 million soldiers who fought and died. 45-thousand of those were from the United States military forces. President Nixon promised an armistice in Vietnam on December 6, 1969 but it did not happen until January 27, 1973 when U.S. forces were withdrawn from the country. Two and a half years later, North Vietnamese forces invaded the south and Siagon fell.
And today we wait for an elusive armistice that has cost nearly 5-thousand lives and 32-thousand wounded warriors.
Perhaps less well known is that this date also marks another tribute to those who have sacrificed their lives on the battlefields of the world. Three years after Germany signed the armistice agreement that ended WWI, The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was dedicated in a funeral service for an unknown American soldier who had been buried on a French battlefield. His remains had been returned to the U.S. just two days prior to the three-year anniversary of the armistice on 11/11/1921. He was interred with a 2-inch layer of French soil beneath him as a reminder of the battlefield on which he fought and died.
M. Timothy Nolting is an award winning Nebraska columnist. His first book, containing 50 selected columns from the past six years, Volume I of “101 Yesterdays” will be available soon. To order contact Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org
Frank W. Buckles at enlistment, photograph is in the public domain.