Re­mem­ber­ing the pa­tri­otic young man from W-B


One hun­dred years ago, a pa­tri­otic young man from West Maple Street in Wilkes-barre, Lawrence C. Fehlinger, em­barked for France. A cor­po­ral in the United States Army, he was one of hun­dreds of thou­sands of sol­diers sent to Europe from 1917-1918 to fight in the “Great War” to “end all wars,” later re­named World War I when it didn’t.

By 1918 the war had stale­mated, with armies mired in miles of hor­rific trenches and thou­sands be­ing killed and wounded in at­tacks over just yards. The re­lent­lessly at­tack­ing Ger­mans were wear­ing down the French and Bri­tish, while al­lied naval block­ades were starv­ing Ger­man civil­ians. Pres­i­dent Woodrow Wil­son won a close 1916 re-elec­tion cam­paign based on keep­ing the United States out of the war. But then the Ger­mans re­sumed tor­pe­do­ing neu­tral ves­sels, pres­sure mounted from fi­nan­cial con­cerns and Bri­tish In­tel­li­gence un­cov­ered a Ger­man of­fer to give Amer­i­can ter­ri­tory to Mex­ico in re­turn for a mil­i­tary al­liance.

Wil­son sought a dec­la­ra­tion of war from Congress to “make the world safe for democ­racy” and Cpl. Fehlinger and mil­lions of oth­ers were mo­bi­lized.

To­day we are hor­ri­fied by the ap­prox­i­mately 7,000 mil­i­tary deaths in the var­i­ous cam­paigns of the War on Ter­ror­ism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 17 years. But con­sider that in 1917-1918, over about just 17 months, 53,402 Amer­i­cans were killed in bat­tle in World War I. A fur­ther 63,114 died in ser­vice from dis­ease and ac­ci­dents. An­other 204,002 were wounded.

Cpl. Fehlinger al­most made it. But in late Septem­ber 1917, Amer­i­can Com­man­der Gen. John J. Per­sh­ing en­gaged in the Meuse­ar­gonne Of­fen­sive in France, which, in­volv­ing 1.2 mil­lion sol­diers, is still the largest bat­tle in Amer­i­can his­tory. An old Wilkes-barre news­pa­per ar­ti­cle re­lates that Cpl. Fehlinger was in the process of re­pair­ing bro­ken com­mu­ni­ca­tion wires when Ger­mans shot poi­son gas shells at him. Badly burned by mus­tard gas, he tried to re­turn to ser­vice with his unit, but was or­dered to the hospi­tal. With wounds con­tam­i­nated by the dirt and filth of trench war­fare and in the days be­fore an­tibi­otics, he didn’t have much of a chance, and died on Oct. 2, 1918. He was only 20.

To­day we ex­pect the re­mains of ev­ery sol­dier to be re­turned home for care­ful burial, but that wasn’t pos­si­ble in 1918. Cpl. Fehlinger to this day lies buried along with 14,245 other Amer­i­can sol­diers in the Meuse-ar­gonne Amer­i­can Mil­i­tary Ceme­tery in Ro­magne-sous-mout­fau­con in France. It is one of many Amer­i­can mil­i­tary ceme­ter­ies in for­eign coun­tries ad­min­is­tered by a fed­eral gov­ern­ment agency called the Amer­i­can Bat­tle Mon­u­ments Com­mis­sion. He nev- er saw his home in Wilkes­barre again, and his im­me­di­ate fam­ily never had the op­por­tu­nity to visit his grave. His mother, re­cov­er­ing from the “Spanish Flu” which is es­ti­mated to have killed over 50 mil­lion peo­ple world­wide im­me­di­ately af­ter the Great War, suf­fered a heart at­tack upon the shock of re­ceiv­ing the tele­gram of his death and died shortly af­ter.

The re­cent book, “Hun­dred Days: The Cam­paign that Ended World War I” by Nick Lloyd does a good job ex­plain­ing how Amer­ica and the al­lies pushed Ger­many to sue for peace and stop the war. Un­for­tu­nately, it didn’t end the war, just put it on pause for two decades. Ger­many was not de­feated mil­i­tar­ily on its own ter­ri­tory; the Treaty of Ver­sailles in­cluded im­pos­si­bly harsh repa­ra­tions; and the Repub­li­can Congress re­jected Amer­i­can par­tic­i­pa­tion in the new world­wide League of Na­tions or­ga­ni­za­tion af­ter Demo­crat Pres­i­dent Wil­son suf­fered a mas­sive stroke. All com­bined in time to lead to im­pos­si­ble eco­nomic con­di­tions in Ger­many, the rise of Adolf Hitler, and an­other world war. Only af­ter that hor­ror would Wil­son’s col­lec­tive se­cu­rity agency, to­day’s United Na­tions, come into be­ing and in­clude all ma­jor world pow­ers.

This year we mark the 100th an­niver­sary of the end of World War I, and the sands of time have al­most erased com­mon mem­ory of the war. Now 46, when young, I re­call my grand­mother Mar­garet Hines point­ing out an an­cient Great War vet­eran sell­ing pop­pies at the old Zayre depart­ment store in Wilkes­barre, but my chil­dren will never see a sol­dier of the Great War. Mem­ory is now only pho­tos and writ­ing. The book “1918 War and Peace” by Gre­gor Dal­las com­bined with “The Great­est Day in His­tory” by Ni­cholas Best will tell you about events a cen­tury ago. Over­all, I think “A World Un­done” by G. J. Mey­ers is the best over­all book on the war. For de­tails, such as how the war started, read “The Sleep­walk­ers” by Christo­pher Clark. Why couldn’t pol­i­tics pre­vent or stop it? Read “Cat­a­clysm” by David Stevenson. The re­cent book, “The Van­quished” by Robert Ger­warth tells how the world re­shaped af­ter the Great War and will open your eyes onto how the world to­day came to be. If you think the flu to­day is bad read “The Great In­fluenza” by John Barry.

But if you want to know what World War I re­ally means, if you are ever in France, stop by the Meuse­ar­gonne Ceme­tery, Plot E, Row 37, Grave 1 and visit Cpl. Fehlinger. The other sol­diers there will ap­pre­ci­ate a visit too. And take a mo­ment on Nov. 11 to re­mem­ber the Great War and all who died and suf­fered in it and re­new our quest for peace.

DAVID ALLEN HINES is the great-great-nephew of Lawrence C. Fehlinger. Hines is a mem­ber of the Board of Directors of the Greater Pittston His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety, who has served over the last 25 years in a num­ber of mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ment po­si­tions lo­cally and in Washington, D.C.

Lawrence C. Fehlinger of Wilkes-barre was killed in World War I in 1918.


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