Sunday, November 11, 2018

The End of "The War to End All Wars"

"The Spirit of the American Doughboy"
at the Zanesville Courthouse*

Today marks the 100th Anniversary of the armistice agreement that ended the hostilities known as "The Great War" or World War I. The Official Roster of Ohio Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines in the World War, 1917-1918 lists 2,062 Muskingum County men who served in the military during that war. (This database, which can be accessed at Muskingum County, Ohio Soldiers in WWI, gives the enlistee's name, residence, birth date and birth place.)

World War I was the result of military rivalry between Britain and Germany, leading to an arms build-up race, and the creation of complex military alliances. The excuse for the war was the assassination of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, by a Serbian nationalist on June 28, 1914. When Austria declared war on Serbia, Austria's ally Germany was bound to enter the war on her side. Serbia's ally, czarist Russia, was bound to enter the war on her side. Russia's allies, Britain and France were bound to enter the war on her side. And so it went until 32 nations around the world were involved.

American soldier's postcard to Miss
Mary Neuman, Cameron, Texas
June 1918. 
 The fighting began in August and raged on until November 1918. While the Europeans literally dug in (this was the war famous for its futile trench warfare), Americans remained at home. President Woodrow Wilson had declared at the outbreak of hostilities that the United States would remain "impartial in thought as well as in action". Germany's policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, however, meant that American ships carrying goods to Britain and its allies, although flying the flag of neutrality, could be--and were--torpedoed and sunk; American Merchant Mariners and some civilians became casualties of a war in which they had no part. (The sinking of the R.M.S. Lusitania, a British ocean liner carrying American passengers, is often mistaken as the reason for America's entry into the war, but that incident happened in 1915. It was not the cause of America's entry, but the loss of civilian life began to change American's minds about neutrality.) Prompted by the assaults on American shipping and the interception of a secret communique between Germany and Mexico proposing an alliance between the two countries, Wilson went before Congress on April 2, 1917 to ask for a declaration of war against Germany and its allies.

In May, 1917, Congress initiated a military draft, requiring American men between 21 and 30 years of age to register for possible call-up to duty. There were three drafts in all; the last one required men up to 45 years old to register. (Ancestry has images of the actual draft cards at WWI Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918.) Driven by patriotic fervor and extreme anti-German propaganda,  4,734,991 American troops entered the conflict.

French soldier's postcard to Mlle
Christina Renon, Duras, France
Date illegible
World War I was one of the deadliest wars in history. The 8,528,831 dead and 21,189,154 wounded are military numbers only. Civilian deaths from military action, famine and disease are hard to detail, but are estimated to be at least 7,000,000. In addition to these deaths, an estimated 50,000,000 people died worldwide between 1918-1919 as a result of the Spanish Flu that was spread primarily by soldiers returning home from the war. (If you have an ancestor who died during this time, it's very possible he or she was one of those influenza victims.)

German soldier's postcard
The world, especially Europe, was profoundly changed as a result of four years of war. The German Kaiser abdicated and Germany became a democracy; the Russian Czar abdicated and was eventually murdered, and Russia became communist. New nations were formed, mostly along ethnic lines, from the breakup of the Austria-Hungarian and the German Empires. The British Empire began to slowly break apart, creating new nations in Africa and Asia. The end of the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) led to upheavals in the Middle East that continue today. In the aftermath of that war, social disruption in and economic ruin of Germany set up the conditions for the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazism. These, in turn, directly led to World War II, the deadliest conflict in world history (over 60 million combined military and civilian deaths). A great deal of the tension seen in the world in 2018 has its roots in the terrible "Great War" of 1914-1918. 

British soldier's postcard mailed to
Miss M. Hastings, Norwich, England
June 14, 1915
Here's the reality of any war we should all keep in mind. There are never any real winners; everybody loses in some way, shape, or form. Every side believes it is in the right, fighting to protect home and loved ones, and that God, called by whatever name, is on its side. I think nothing illustrates this better than these vintage postcards intended for soldiers to send to their sweethearts back home.

*Retrieved 11 November 2018 at

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