In this photograph from 1952, American Legion members are pictured, from left, Glen Stenson, Henry Gassert, Ward Zeiler, Sherman Walrod and Henry Jackson. Gassert served as a medic during the First World War.
A World War I-era Army unit featuring Phillips County resident Leslie Taylor is pictured in San Antonio, Texas.
The War to End All Wars
This Veterans Day marks the centennial of the end of what was supposed to be the world’s final war. For veterans, it is a day to reflect on the sacrifices that they and their fellow soldiers made while serving the United States.
For civilians, it is a time of thanksgiving and a chance to honor the members of the armed services who ensure the continued independence and security of the United States.
Veterans Day was founded following the end of WWI, and the holiday itself will see the 99th anniversary of its celebration this year.
War and armistice
Exactly one year after the end of hostilities with the German Empire, from his desk in the Oval Office, President Woodrow Wilson issued a letter to the nation proclaiming Nov. 11 as Armistice Day.
Wilson’s 1919 message set the tone for the holiday that would come to be known as Veterans Day, which today honors all veterans who have fought under the banner of the United States.
“To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service, and with gratitude for the victory,” Wilson wrote.
The First World War saw more than 4 million Americans enter military service — 117,000 of these soldiers never came home but were slain in the trenches and killing fields of the Western Front.
Those who returned shared stories of adventure, bloodshed and a new, terrifying instrument of war — poison gas — which was used by both the Central and Allied powers.
Many struggled to find jobs and adjust to civilian life. Roughly 200,000 American soldiers were wounded in combat, according to the Department of Defense’s Defense Casualty Analysis System.
Some Coloradoans were already serving in the military when the U.S. joined the conflict in 1917. The April 6 declaration of war was first announced in the April 13, 1917, edition of The Holyoke Enterprise, with the headline “America Formally Enters the War with Germany.”
The same paper described an April 7 demonstration, during which a “martial band” of Holyoke residents marched down Interocean Avenue to the courthouse and made speeches in support of the war.
“The ringing applause that greeted all speeches of a belligerent nature showed that Holyoke will do its share towards placing the banner of a republic on the war-ridden country of Germany,” the report read.
Wilson initially called for an all-volunteer force to assist the Allied Powers in Western Europe. The Colorado WWI Centennial Commission reports that the armed services included about 1,500 Colorado volunteers by May 1918. However, after failing to meet recruitment goals, Congress instituted a draft, growing the total number of Coloradoans in the military to 43,000.
On July 13, 1917, the first group of 25 men from Phillips County left for military service. The first man from Phillips County to die while serving was Walter Cromwell, who succumbed to cerebromeningitis at Camp Funston in Kansas.
The U.S. began deploying troops into the French theater in October 1917. Many Coloradoans fought in France, alongside troops from other states in units such as the 40th and 89th infantry divisions.
Near-constant bombardment, unsanitary conditions and the threat of chemical attacks awaited soldiers who served in the trenches, which were dug along the battlefronts of Belgium and northern France. The infusion of American manpower, however, boosted the morale of Allied forces, and American troops were crucial in the Allied maneuvers of 1918 that ultimately brought the war to an end.
Those who did not serve abroad were mobilized in other ways. Virtually every industry was drafted into the war effort, and agriculture in particular expanded to supply the Allied armies. Women took over much of the farm work left by the men who shipped overseas.
The Hundred Days Offensive began Aug. 8, 1918, and saw the Allied army break the stalemate on the Western front and advance into Germany. After several months of gradual progress, in November 1918, Allied commanders met with a German delegation in the forest of Compiègne to negotiate an armistice.
Although the Nov. 11 agreement was signed around 5 a.m., it stipulated that hostilities would cease at 11 a.m., which was deliberately chosen as the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
Despite jubilation at home, reports from the Allied front told of sober reactions to the news of the war’s end.
“At the front there was no celebration,” U.S. Colonel Thomas Gowenlock later wrote. “What was to come next? They did not know — and hardly cared. Their minds were numbed by the shock of peace.”
Four Coloradoans received Congressional Medals of Honor for their conduct during the war. Jesse N. Funk and Frank Upton survived, while Marcellus Chiles and John Wickersham were decorated posthumously.
Local vets form Legion post
In January 1920, Holyoke American Legion Post No. 90 was organized by veterans from the First World War. According to “Those Were the Days,” Phillips County Historical Society’s 1988 book on county history, a temporary charter was received Feb. 16, and the national charter was granted Aug. 10.
Part of the legacy of the veterans of the “war to end all wars” was establishing clubs where former soldiers could make friends, swap stories and reflect on the differences between military and civilian life.
American Legion Post No. 90 and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 6482 commander and Vets Club organizer Terry Barth said local veterans’ organizations carry on this legacy today, even though the last U.S. WWI veteran died in 2011.
Locally, WWI is fading into the past, as fewer and fewer people can speak to the experience of having lived through the war.
“It’s awfully hard to find people who know much personally about WWI. A lot of that history has been lost,” Barth said.
Veterans returning from WWI faced high rates of shellshock and psychological trauma and had a difficult time finding work, as industry contracted following the war boom.
Today, Barth said, veterans of the recent wars in the Middle East are facing similar struggles, and many are reluctant to talk about their wartime experience.
For Barth, the local groups are a way of continuing the legacy of veterans reaching out to other veterans and finding themselves among the legacy of people who have fought for the preservation of democracy.
“The day will come when these younger people will want to sit and reminisce, and they’re going to want a place to do that.”