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.