Looking back on momentous events
The American men and women are all dead now, including my father, who was an undergraduate at Hamilton College and in the student officer’s military training program, when the war to “make the world safe for democracy” ended in November 1918.
Today’s veterans were minted in World War II and in the 72 years of warfare that our Armed Forces have fought in since then. War drums continue to beat!
The war scenario remains the same. Older men and now some women make war and the young fight them -- then are often forgotten when the parades and cheering stop. What would happen if the young refused to make war? Would the war makers take their place?
In “The People Yes,” Carl Sandburg writes of a young girl seeing her first troop parading and asking “What are those?” “Soldiers.” “What are soldiers?” “They are for war. They fight each other, try to kill as many of the other side as they can.” The girl held still and studied. “Do you know… I know something.” “Yes, what is it you know?” “Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come.”
No wars, no veterans! An impossible dream? Earth is a tiny, lonely insignificant dot in the infinity of space. We have no life lines to save our planet — except you and me, to begin with. As Bill Watterson has mirthfully observed, “The secret sign of intelligent life in the universe is that they haven’t attempted to contact us.”
My father’s student World War I uniform and Smokey the Bear hat hung on a nail in our dusty attic until his death dur- ing the long blood bath of the Vietnam War. Thank goodness World War I ended when it did. My peaceful father hated war and killing. Other family members had no choice.
Several other events happened in 1918 that are virtually unknown but had profound impacts on our world and, ironically, in this simple country man.
British “Tommy” Private Henry Tandey (the most decorated private in World War I) was by all accounts incredibly brave, courageous and often wounded.
Under different circumstances, Tandey could have easily fallen through the cracks of history and been utterly forgotten in the fog of time that inevitably descended. It was September 1918 at the Battle of Marcoing. In the aftermath of this bloody battle, a lone German soldier suddenly appeared out of the fog. Instead of shooting, Tandey waved the soldier away, telling him to go home. In a few months the war was over, Tandey went home, resumed civilian life and began working for the Standard Motor Company in Coventry, England. He married but had no children.
In 1934, the new German Chancellor Adolph Hitler began talking about how a British soldier had spared his life. Private Tandey was recognized in a photo receiving his Victoria Cross from King George V in Buckingham Palace. When Tandy learned who he had spared, he said he
wished he had shot him. A copy of a British war painting showing Tandey carrying a wounded soldier on his back to an aid station at the September battle was requested by the German Embassy in London.
In 1938, when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was taken to Hitler’s mountain home, Berchtesgarden, he was shown this painting hanging on a wall. When the prime minister came back to London, he later told Tandey what Hitler had said.
For Tandey to spare a hated enemy’s life was a fine and noble decision. To later discover whom he had spared proved to be the worst decision he could have made. What would have the future fate of the world been if Private Tandey had aimed and pulled the trigger?
But for my father’s generation, a greater calamity than war was unleashing in November 1918. A calamity that ranks as only a brief footnote in history.
It began in Camp Funston, Kansas, when on March 4, 1918, an Army cook named Albert Gritshell fell ill. Within an hour there were more than 100 men similarly afflicted and in the infirmary.
It was called the Spanish flu. In 1918-1919, it infected one out of every three persons on this planet — some 500 million. It killed anywhere from 30 to 60 million or more. This plague proved to be the greatest human disaster in the 20th century, exceeding the death totals from both World War I and World War II.
This pandemic ravaged the young and healthy and was especially highest among people in their 20s. It also affected men more than women. Isolated communities with little built up immunity were especially hard hit. Bristol Bay, Alaska had 40 percent of its popu- lation die. This rapidly spreading infection was not caused by bacteria, as most doctors thought, but was caused by a virus strain -- a strain that was only isolated in 2005 and is now stored in a highsecurity facility in Atlanta, Ga.
While global wars may be a thing of the past, global pestilence still hovers like a vulture over the world. We live in a mobile world, in a population able to spread any flu rapidly around the world. An epidemic half as deadly as in 1918-19 would kill today an estimated 120 million people.
A Hamilton College student died of the Spanish flu. What if my father had been that unfortunate student? Thankfully, for this simple country man, his father was spared. Possibly for the first and only time in its history, the venerable Brookfield/Madison County Fair was canceled in 1918.
But these are only the musings of a simple country man who lives off the grid with his beautiful wife Lois in the hills of Brookfield. We live in a dark and perilous world, but we have good people all around us. They are the sunshine in our lives and we hope in yours too.
One of Adolph Hitler’s purported favorite paintings, showing Private Henry Tandey carrying a wounded soldier.
Private Henry Tandey
American soldiers gargling with salt water, with a warning sign about Spanish influenza.