Monday, February 28, 2011

Frank Woodruff Buckles, 1901-2011

I woke up today with the intention of posting about the electronic records workshop that I taught last week and about New York in Bloom 2011, but I learned this morning that Frank Woodruff Buckles, the last American veteran of the First World War, died yesterday at the age of 110. The last surviving French and German veterans died in 2008, the last surviving British soldier died in 2009, and the last surviving Canadian veteran died last year; as a result, Claude Choules, who served in Britain's Royal Navy, and Florence Green, who served in the Women's Royal Air Force, are likely the last living people who served in any capacity during the First World War.

Buckles led a fascinating life. A native of Missouri, he lied about his age in order to enlist in the Army and was sent to England and France, then came home and found work in an Oklahoma City post office, the Toronto offices of a steamship company and a telegraph firm, and a New York City bank. Upon realizing that he most enjoyed working in the shipping industry, he took jobs on passenger and cargo ships sailing to South America. In 1940, he accepted a shipping industry job that took him to Manila. He was taken prisoner when the Japanese invaded the Philippines, and spent three and a half years in prison camps. After the Second World War ended, he lived in San Francisco for a time, got married, and decided to purchase a farm near Charles Town, West Virginia, where his forebears had initially settled. He spent the rest of his life working his farm -- he gave up driving a tractor in 2006 -- and as it became known that he was one of a handful of surviving First World War veterans, he began speaking out about the need to honor the men and women who had served in the 20th century's first total war.

The War to End All War has never captured the American public imagination in the way that the war that followed it has. We entered the First World War late and thus were spared the horrific casualties that the other combatant nations suffered. Moreover, most Americans have few moral qualms about our nation's role in the Second World War: we were fighting aggressive regimes that repressed their own people, oppressed the peoples living in the nations they conquered, and, in the case of the Nazi regime, committed genocide. It's a lot harder to construct such a compelling narrative around our entry into the First World War.

However, the war's influence can still be felt all around us. The manner in which the peace was brokered ensured that Europe remained perilously unstable. The continent again plunged into war twenty-one years after the War to End All War ended, and Soviet communism, another product of the First World War, survived in Europe until 1989. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire created the modern Middle East, which is still struggling toward stability and responsible governance. The war gave rise to a genocide -- a word that became depressingly familiar as the 20th century wore on. As Paul Fussell brilliantly explains in The Great War and Modern Memory, the readiness with which we see raunchy double entendres in innocent statements, our appreciation of irony, and the cynical humor with which we often regard various social and political institutions are the result of cultural changes wrought by the First World War.

Moreover, the First World War does have an object lesson for us. In discussing the impact of the First Battle of the Somme, which saw 60,000 British troops killed or injured in a single day, Paul Fussell notes that:
Whatever the main cause of failure, the attack on the Somme was the end of illusions about breaking the line and sending the cavalry through to end the war. Contemplating the new awareness brought to both sides by the first day of July, 1916, [English poet Edmund] Blunden wrote eighteen years later: "By the end of the day both sides had seen, in a sad scrawl of broken earth and murdered men, the answer to the question. No road. No thoroughfare. Neither race had won, nor could win, the war. The War had won, and would go on winning."
Sometimes -- most of the time, actually -- war wins, and everyone and everything sucked into its maw loses. We forget that at our peril.

Approximately 16 million people died as a result of the First World War, and roughly 21 million people were wounded. It's hard to make sense of those numbers, but it's a lot easier to grasp the enormity of the loss when focusing on the individuals -- breathing, warm-fleshed beings with needs, aspirations, dislikes, passions, and plans -- who were caught up in the war and, all too often, never made it out. Frank Buckles, who quietly led an extraordinary life, was a living reminder of the war's enduring impact, as were all of the other men and women who were drawn into the conflict, survived, and went on to lead quietly extraordinary lives.

Thankfully, Frank Buckles's life will likely not be forgotten: a documentary film about his life is in the works. The lives of other American veterans of the war are documented in archives throughout the United States (my own repository among them) and in productions such as the superb radio documentary created by the World War I Living History Project. As an archivist, I would be the first to argue that the documentary record constitutes an essential, inextricable, vivid tie to the past. It is nonetheless sad and sobering to see the documentary record become the only thing that connects us to a given point in the past.

Requiescat in pace, Frank Buckles.


C in DC said...

Your title says "2001" instead of "1901".

A truly remarkable story.

l'Archivista said...

Fixed! Thanks for drawing my attention to the error, C!