Exactly one hundred years ago today, World War I ended with the signing of the Armistice.
I’m posting this at 11:00 my time, though of course the actual Armistice was signed in France, so I’m probably four or five hours late.
My grandfather was a part of the American Expeditionary Force along with a million others, went through basic training, shipped over to France, and arrived just in time for the last offensive in the war, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, which began on September 26, 1918. He was 23 at the time.
I never met him-he died some years before I was born. I rarely ever heard anyone even speak about him. After my father died, I found three tiny little notebooks, each about the size of a smart phone, filled with handwritten scrawls of pencil in a desk drawer. They were diaries written by my grandfather from World War I. I don’t remember my father ever talking about them. I kept them of course, but I didn’t sit down and try to read them until years later, and then I spent a long time painstakingly transcribing them.
On Armistice Day in 1918, my grandfather was in an Army hospital recovering from mustard gas poisoning. He didn’t learn about the Armistice until the next day. He went on to develop serious pneumonia and nearly died. Here’s the relevant page from his diary:
You probably can’t read that. I sure can’t. I dug out the diaries yesterday and took that picture with my phone. To be honest I’m not entirely sure that’s the right page, but I think it is.
From the transcription, his November 12 entry reads: “They have a nice nurse here. She does all she can for me, but its rough sledding just the same. Today we got news of the signing of the armistice. Everyone cheered. As for me, it seemed queer to be lying sick, and in more danger of death than I was while the war was on, because I felt in my bones that pneumonia was coming on.”
November 18: “This morning a lieut. examined my lungs. Then he called in a captain. Next came a major and finally a colonel. He examined me all over, then said ‘Take him to ward 10.’ I considered myself as good as dead, because ward 10 is the pneumonia ward.”
November 20: “The days here are even worse than in ward one. The nights too, are awful, because there are some awful sick men here, and they grunt and moan all night.”
(Incidentally this was also about the time when a lot of soldiers would have been dying from the 1918 flu pandemic.)
On December 1st he was “pronounced cured.” He wrote a letter home on that day, which I’ll quote here as it summarizes his part in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive pretty well.
“I was gassed at Verdun [ed: it was actually north of Verdun] about the fifth of Nov. and it developed into bronchitis and pneumonia. I’ve been flat on my back for three weeks. But today the doctor has allowed me out of bed, so all’s well that ends well. I hope you haven’t worried any over me.
“I think I’ve seen quite as much of war as I care to. I was in the worst of that Argonne drive and on the fifth day, got a wound that sent me to the hospital for a month. When I got back I found the company, or rather what was left of it, holding down what was probably the worst section of front from Holland to Switzerland. I was there, dodging shells, for a couple of weeks, then one night I went to sleep in a shell hole and woke up badly gassed with mustard gas. The shell had burst within 10 feet of me, without waking me. That is how used we get to shell fire. By the time I got back to the hospital I was all puffed up, and my skin all over had turned exactly the color of a boiled crab. Also there was quite some itching. They gave me a bath in some very hot water, and soap that was 90% lye, and that got me rid of the gas on the outside, but the gas in my lungs continued to make trouble for three weeks as I have said. But I feel entirely all right now; I don’t think there will be any after effects.”
Despite feeling “entirely all right,” he could barely stand up on his own, and he spent a big chunk of December recovering. He eventually returned to the US by steamer in May 1919. He went on to marry my grandmother and became a fairly prominent high school chemistry teacher in his community before dying in 1959.
I often think about these diaries around this time of year. It’s the only way I know my grandfather, really. I see a lot of echoes of my own writing and personality in his writing: His dry wit, his casual nonchalance about things that should be horrifying (falling asleep during a shell barrage!), his tendency to become focused on minutia that others might not even notice (a lot of his diaries talk about farming techniques in France). There’s a familiar sense of mischievousness that comes across as well, in his attempts to forge ration passes after the end of the war. (Successfully, I note with some pride.)
There is also something profoundly… I don’t know … profound … about reading how many times your grandfather almost died in a war.
No real point to this post. It’s just interesting how history intersects with our lives in ways we might not even realize.
And, okay, if I might get up on a soap box for just a brief second, we seem to be rapidly moving toward another time in history when we rhetorically dehumanize our political rivals to such an extent that we might feel no remorse over simply killing them. Occasional reminders of what a war looks like is never a bad thing.
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