100 years have passed since fighting stopped in World War I
On the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month exactly 100 years ago, the fighting stopped. That’s why we observe Veterans Day today.
The Great War, as
World War I was then called, didn’t officially end until nine months later with the Treaty of Versailles. But to those Americans in the muddy, dis- ease-ridden European trenches, the Nov. 11,
1918, armistice ceasing hostilities between Allied nations and Germany meant they’d soon be home.
I do not know where my grandfather, Guy Theodore Murray, was on that date. France, I suspect.
If you had family involved with WWI, do you know much about them? Where they were? What unit they were assigned to? What they looked like in uniform? How experiencing the worst aggressions of man affected their attitudes?
Historians sometimes refer to The Lost Generation, those who partici- pated in WWI and were born between 1883 and 1900. The term was coined by author-playwright Gertrude Stein and popularized by Mississippi writer Ernest Hemingway in his “A Movable Feast,” in which he explains Stein heard the phrase from a French garage owner.
When a young mechanic was too slow to repair Stein’s car, the angry boss shouted, “You are all a génération perdue,” a lost generation, “all of you young people who served in the war.”
Lost? My grandfather, 27 when he went to war, accomplished much after-
ward. He pursued his oil gauger career, married and reared four children in a rural western Pennsylvania village. He also took in me and my siblings for a year during a family crisis.
I cannot remember Granddad talking about his war experiences, certainly not to my young self who didn’t know enough to ask. He died when I was 11, and now my mother and all her brothers are gone also, leaving no one of that generation to fill in the blanks.
I remember when sitting down to dinner at my grandparents, if we didn’t eat everything on our plates we’d be admonished by Granddad: “Remember all the poor, starving children of France.”
From that remark, WWI obviously left an impression, but I’ve uncovered no written memories or family letters. The search for government records is slow and on-going.
Last year while sorting a stack of faded family photographs, I found one of my grandfather in a WWI “doughboy” uniform. There’s no readable insignia or markings, so it doesn’t provide clues.
Granddad’s tombstone in a Greene County, PA, cemetery states: “Pvt. Guy T. Murray, Dec. 18, 1889 – Feb. 14, 1962, 520th Motor Truck Co., World War I.” Yet, the current U.S. Army Transportation Corps historian has told me he has no records of the 520th.
From that stack of photos I set aside another oddity. Why would there be a ship among these images when my grandfather was no world traveler? Last week I restudied the photo and typed into a computer search engine, “Ships used in WWI.” Bingo!
After several hours of comparing photos, I’ve concluded the ship is the SS Havana, and smudged lettering on the stern finally makes sense. Havana was a passenger ship before the war, built in 1906 in Philadelphia, PA.
The War Department commandeered the Havana as a U.S. Army Transport and she was on the first convoy of ships to take troops to France.
That jives with family stories that Granddad was among the first in Gen. Pershings’ Expeditionary Forces to arrive in Europe.
Havana made only one transatlantic crossing before transferring to the Navy to be outfitted as a hospital ship renamed USS Comfort. If I never prove Granddad was aboard that first trip, I can consider that his being in a transport unit meant he moved goods, messages, ammunition, equipment and injured soldiers. To a hospital ship?
So many unanswered questions, and this personal search represents just a drop in the bigger war history bucket for us all. If you have a WWI ancestor, I hope your trek down history lane is easier.
By this date 100 years ago, more than 2 million American soldiers had served in Western Europe and more than 50,000 of them died there.
Today’s Veterans Day commemorates all American military veterans, of which about 16 million alive today served in at least one war. On this important centennial of the WWI armistice, however, we should not forget to pay homage to the longgone men and women of my grandfather’s generation.
They should not remain The Lost Generation.
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville, VA 22923.
Many World War I family stories have faded away, leaving unanswered questions about unmarked photographs. For example, did Guy T. Murray, at left, arrive in France on the SS Havana, right, a passenger ship commandeered by the U.S. Army to transport the first U.S. soldiers to France? These images originally from Pennsylvania join thousands of others across the U.S. to raise questions about 100 years ago.