Monday, February 28, 2011

And then there were none...

The New York Times is reporting that the last American veteran of the First World War has died.

Frank Buckles, who drove an Army ambulance in France in 1918 and came to symbolize a generation of embattled young Americans as the last of the World War I doughboys, died on Sunday at his home in Charles Town, W. Va. He was 110.

My mother's father, Benjamin Davis, was also a WW1 veteran. He served in the Army Air Corps in France, just as his son, my Uncle Fred, did a generation later in WW2. Ben sewed canvas patches on damaged airplanes when they came back to the airbase. Fred was a navigator on bombers, mostly ones which flew out of Great Britain to attack the Nazis in Europe.

Grandpa Davis, who was in his early 30s when he was drafted to fight in that conflict, passed away at approximately age 92 in 1978. (We don't know for sure what year he was born in Poland.) After the war Ben was accidentally reunited with his family who had, unbeknownst to him, moved to Los Angeles from Poland. Ben had been in the Czar's army in Siberia 15 years or more earlier when he fled to China and lost all contact with his parents in Poland. By chance Ben was living just blocks from them in the garment district of East L.A. in 1920 when the were reunited.

He was only a corporal and he never got closer than 30 or so miles from the Western Front trenches, but Mr. Buckles became something of a national treasure as the last living link to the two million men who served in the American Expeditionary Forces in France in “the war to end all wars.”

In its time, the First World War was generally called The Great War. I've read a number of excellent books detailing it. My favorite was probably A Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin. That book tells the story of the war and its aftermath in the Middle East.

For a general history of the war, I recommend, The First World War: A Complete History by Martin Gilbert. Mr. Gilbert's book is very well written and gives an interesting insight into the many poets who served in that conflict. He quotes from a variety of poems penned by soldiers in the field of battle. The most famous poem from WW1 was, of course, In Flanders Fields by a Canadian doctor named Lt. Colonel John McCrae.

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

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