Frank Buckles died this weekend at the age of 110. He was the last known surviving United States veteran of World War I, and a fellow with a compelling life history . One of his goals was to see a national monument set up to honor the veterans of World War I in the way other wars and conflicts like World War II, Korea, and Vietnam had been honored. He died without seeing that goal fulfilled.
Frank Buckles lied about his age in order to go off to war, and for his troubles he got sent to one of the most horrible wars ever faced for the infantry soldier. As an ambulance driver his duties included driving German prisoners of war. Ironically enough, in World War II he was a prisoner of war himself in the Philippines, an experience he (understandably) did not wish to talk about. What he did wish to talk about, upon his return from the horrors of the Pacific War, was the dedication of a national monument to honor the veterans of World War I.
It is hard to understand the horrors of what happened in World War I. As that war had a very destructive impact on my own family, I will try to describe what I know of its effects on my own family from what I have heard from my own relatives. In a dark and twisted way, the legacy of World War I still haunts my family, and my own personal life, as will be shortly clear.
Two of my great-grandfathers fought in World War I. Both of their lives were dramatically harmed by the experience, which caused a great deal of problems in my family. My great-grandfather William Filer served in the Western Front and was gassed in France. He met, and married, a strong-willed army nurse named Edna Miller. Six months after my grandmother was born, he died of his injuries, never having recovered his health from his horrible wartime experience. My great-grandmother never remarried, as my grandmother Lucille was her only child.
Unfortunately, my great-grandmother never fully recovered from the war. The experience of losing her husband because of what she judged to be his “weakness,” leaving her abandoned with a baby, embittered her against men. She took out that hostility towards men on two generations of my family. She treated my grandfather like hired help, never according him the respect he was due as her son-in-law, and the tensions she caused within the relationship of my paternal grandparents led them to discuss divorce after her death. That discussion led my father to vow never to divorce himself, a vow he was unable to keep.
Unfortunately, that was not the only extent of her influence in my family. For the first six years of my father’s life, my father shared a bed with my great-grandmother, an experience that led her to expose him to the corrosive and abusive effects of her disdain for men. Needless to say, the after effects of that act of child abuse have not ceased to wind themselves out, as I am the third or fourth generation after that curse started in my family. The bitterness that results from a difficult life can be horribly destructive on many innocent lives. Had she let the sorrow die with her perhaps she would not have burdened the following generations of my family with such a horrible curse.
The fact that her own grandfather was the veteran of another horrible war, the Civil War, one wonders if the trauma of war on my family’s history goes back further than World War I. At the very least, though, World War I itself set up a situation where a bitter single mother maligned the course of generations of her family with her thoughtless harshness and bitterness, the effects of itself still working its way through my family. Needless to say, it is impossible for me to look on the horrors of World War I with anything approaching equanimity.
Nor was the experience of my father’s family the only bad effects of World War I on my family’s history. For another great-grandfather of mine served in World War I on the Western front, and he was also gassed. He and my great-grandmother, a red-haired foundling apparently of Scot-Irish descent (with a fascinating and dark personal history of her own, being a favorite foster daughter of a wealthy man but being hated and detested, and never formally adopted, by the rest of her foster family) had two children in the midst of the Great Depression, while the family was a bit nomadic and while he was a semi-invalid from the end of World War I until his death 42 years later.
The effects of both the moving around and the semi-invalid status were quite disruptive. For example, my grandfather joined the Coast Guard as a minor and became semi-nomadic himself in the service, not settling down until he moved to the area outside of Plant City after leaving the service. Additionally, having a father incapable of providing for his family due to illness forced him to work at a very early age to help the family make it. Such a heavy responsibility at a young age almost certainly drastically affected his own mindset and view of the world and of his opportunities.
Additionally, and though the details of it are a little bit sketchy, his death caused some major difficulties. For one, he appears to have died in 1959 at the Veteran’s Hospital in Miami as the result of a botched blood transfusion. When he died, my great-grandmother had some problems getting a widow’s pension because of questions of the regularity of their marriage. Needless to say, World War I and its related consequences did no one on my family any benefit and revealed or caused a lot of very serious difficulties.
It seems incredible that a war which caused horrendously destructive casualty rates as well as such horrible effects in the lives of families left behind by premature death has no monument to honor those who fought. While World War I may seem a bit pointless because of the truce-like nature of its much-maligned peace treaty, the sacrifices of the soldiers who fought in that war were real. The aftereffects of the war in the decline of Western imperialism, the loss of faith because of seemingly pointless destruction and death, the shattering of generations of families (including my own), and the explosive effects of communism, fascism, and nationalism left in its wake all cry out for some kind of monument. It may be a monument to bungling and folly, but enough suffering happened for it to be worthy of memory, at least as a cautionary tale. Let not the dead of that horrible war die in vain, to be consigned to oblivion even as the last survivors are being consigned to the grave.
Just a couple of very minor historical corrections; William Filer died in September 1923 when Lucille Filer, his only daughter, was six months of age. He did live to see her born. Jacob Filmore Koontz died in May 1959, two months after his first grandson, William Jacob Epperson, was born.
Those corrections will be made.
Pingback: Book Review: A Mad Catastrophe | Edge Induced Cohesion