With news this week of the passing of the final American veteran of World War I, Frank Buckles, I must admit to one irreverent thought:
He was a lot luckier than the first American to die.
I looked up the first American casualties of the war. There were three.
Sometime in the night of October 2-3, 1917, Corporal James B. Gresham (pictured) and two of his men, privates Merle D. Hay and Thomas F. Enright, were preparing in their trench for an attack on German lines. Without warning, a German raiding party attacked and killed these three "doughboys." I doubt they even got to shoot back.
They were the first American victims of an orgy of slaughter. Over the next 13 months of fighting, more than 115,000 Americans died in the fighting, and that bloodbath was paltry compared to the 1 million Britons, 1.4 million French, 1.8 million Russians and 2 million Germans who died.
The New York Times article on Buckles's death describes his determination at 16 to join the armed forces and his choice to become an ambulance driver. What I found most fascinating was a memory Buckles recounted of French troops drinking wine and expressing enthusiasm for a return to the Front. It flies in the face of modern World War I narratives (such as the book, Birdsong, which I just finished) which emphasize the demoralized nature of Allied forces.
“What I have a vivid memory of is the French soldiers — being in a small village and going in to a local wine shop in the evening,” he told a Library of Congress interviewer. “They had very, very little money. But they were having wine and singing the ‘Marseillaise’ with enthusiasm. And I inquired, ‘What is the occasion?’ They were going back to the front. Can you imagine that?”