All Quiet on the Western Front

Corporal Frank Buckles, U.S. Army
Corporal Frank Buckles, U.S. Army

World War I: a War so Great that it demanded a sequel.

One that topped the original.

In bloodshed.

Long after the guns fell silent on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the one thousand nine hundred and eighteenth year since the year Dennis the Small misidentified as the year Our Lord came in the flesh, the war raged on the in the memory of those caught up in the collective madness that consumed Western Christendom. The last living soldier who experienced World War I died today.

Frank Buckles was 110 years old when he died. He was 16 1/2 when he lied about his age in order to join the U.S. Army:

“I went to the state fair up in Wichita, Kansas, and while there, went to the recruiting station for the Marine Corps,” he said. “The nice Marine sergeant said I was too young when I gave my age as 18, said I had to be 21.”
Buckles returned a week later.
“I went back to the recruiting sergeant, and this time I was 21,” he said with a grin. “I passed the inspection … but he told me I just wasn’t heavy enough.”
Then he tried the Navy, whose recruiter told Buckles he was flat-footed.
Buckles wouldn’t quit. In Oklahoma City, an Army captain demanded a birth certificate.
“I told him birth certificates were not made in Missouri when I was born, that the record was in a family Bible. I said, ‘You don’t want me to bring the family Bible down, do you?'” Buckles said with a laugh. “He said, ‘OK, we’ll take you.'”
He enlisted Aug. 14, 1917, serial number 15577.

His war service wasn’t the end of Buckles’ adventures:

In the 1940s, Buckles worked for a shipping company in Manila, Philippines. He was captured by the Japanese in 1942, and spent the next three and a half years in the Los Baños prison camp. He became malnourished, with a weight below 100 lb, and developed beriberi, yet led his fellow inmates in calisthenics. He was rescued on February 23, 1945.

Buckles married after the war and moved to the farm in West Virginia where he passed away today:

When asked about the secret of his long life, Buckles replied: “Hope,” adding, “[W]hen you start to die… don’t.” He also said the reason he had lived so long was that, “I never got in a hurry.”

8 thoughts on “All Quiet on the Western Front”

  1. WWI was the last war of the pre-modern era, it began much of a piece with all of the quite frequent petty European wars of the preceding centuries. But industrialization had carried the art of warfare beyond what that era could bear, giving way to the modern era in the process, a very messy process. The first truly world war was spawned, with terrible new weapons such as airplanes, tanks, dreadnaughts, chemical warfare, machine guns, artillery, submarines, flame throwers, and much else being added to the stock and trade of the modern warfighter not just experimentally but in earnest. The resultant devastation to populations, societies, institutions, governments, and mores changed the face of Europe and the world in short order. And, as so many have observed, the loose ends of WWI set the stage for the other defining events of the 20th century: WWII and the Cold War.

    It would not be at all amiss to define history in terms of pre-WWI and post-WWI. And now we lose yet another link to that pre-WWI, an era that we will increasingly struggle to understand and comprehend, as alien to those in the modern age as would be visitors from Mars.

    But today that dichotomy is all the more important, because we face a new struggle between modern and anti-modern forces. Just as so many people in the western world could not possibly imagine a world without pervasive individualistic liberties, consensual governance, vibrant economies, flourishing trade, and rampant freedom of information just as many people (both within and without the developed world) are fighting against the very foundations of the modern world. Since the pressure of the Cold War has largely been relieved this battle has started to pick up steam and I think will define the 21st century as much as WWI and its aftermath defined the 20th. We can only hope that the battle is resolved in the favor of modernism (at least I do) and that we can achieve that goal at a much less gruesome price.

  2. The US Civil War was fought with the tactics of the Napoleonic Wars, at least until Petersburg when the trench finally appeared. The terrible death toll (I give a lecture on the medical history of the Civil War every so often), in part, was due to the combination of those tactics, using the French concept of elan’ and the Minie’ ball, another French invention. For those who might not know, the Minie’ ball allowed the use of a muzzle loading rifle. It had a “skirt” at one end of the ball so that the rifling could grasp the skirt as the gases of powder burning expanded it outward. This spun the ball, and later bullet, and gave far greater accuracy than a smoothbore musket. The armies using smoothbore muskets could stand 100 yards from each other and fire away with small numbers hit by the bullets. The Minie’ ball changed all that. The tactics did not change until Petersburg.

    The other great killer of the Civil War was disease caused by the very large size of the armies and the primitive state of hygiene. Napoleon’s armies were as large but Baron Larrey, Napoleon’s surgeon in chief, was the greatest military medical leader up to the last year of the First World War.

    Interestingly, tetanus was not a problem in the Civil War but became the terrible plague of the early WWI campaigns in Flanders. The reason was that the South did not use horse manure as fertilizer and the Belgians did. Antitoxin came in 1915 but thousands died of tetanus the first year.

    The machine gun finally finished the French tactics of Napoleon but at terrible cost. Ironically, the Maxim gun, the best of the machine guns, was American invented but declined by the US army and adopted by the Germans. In another example of idiocy, the US army did not authorize the use of the BAR, invented in 1912 by John Browning and an excellent light machine gun, because they feared the Germans would capture and copy it. It was not used until WWII.

    Fortunately, Teddy Roosevelt insisted the US army adopt the Mauser rifle and the Springfield 03 copied the mechanism. We paid royalties to Mauser until 1914.

    The terrible casualties of early WWI were due to the use of the machine gun and to poor understanding of wound shock. Blood transfusion was introduced by the Americans in 1917, even before the US troops arrived. The British lost 60,000 dead in the first day of the Somme. Better treatment reduced deaths but only the tank solved the problem of the machine gun. German casualties were as bad as the allies.

    Florence Nightingale had written the medical protocols of the British army before WWI and disease was far less of a problem. WWI was the first war in history in which more died of wounds than disease.

  3. A few other factors that contributed to the high casualty rates in WWI…the low opinion that certain commanders (especially British) held of their inexperienced (volunteer/draftee) soldiers and consequent refusal to let them use cover properly when advancing. Second, the almost religious belief propagated in the French army before the war that only the attack mattered and that Frenchmen were psychologically ill-suited for the defensive. Finally, the nature of communications…radio was not yet reliable, and telephones were easily disrupted by shelling…and logistics, which was largely rail-dependent and would not have allowed rapid followup of advances even if the enemy’s line could have been broken.

  4. “For those who might not know, the Minie’ ball allowed the use of a muzzle loading rifle.”

    Well, no. Muzzle loading rifles had been around for years before the Minie ball was invented. Armies didn’t generally use them because the rounds were tight in the barrel, to ensure that the rifling did its thing, which increased the time it took to load the gun. Muskets were accurate enough that getting multiple musket volleys off to one rifle volley was considered a good deal, especially since smoothbore barrels were cheaper, easier to clean (not a small consideration, given that you were shooting unclad lead with black powder), and there was more tolerance for undersized rounds.

    Despite this, frontiersmen, skirmishers, and sharpshooters all favored rifles for their improved accuracy.

  5. Mike K,

    I’m a LONG way from being an authority on the American Civil War, but I think you have several errors in your statements, possibly more of emphasis or specificity than misapprehension. I’m reading the autobiography of US Grant at the moment, and he mentions trench works and entrenched positions many many times before Petersburg, especially at Vicksburg, he even refers somewhere in there to what sounds like standard practices for digging them and attacking them.

    Also, the rifle had been around a long time before the civil war. My understanding is that it was finally being more widely adopted at that time but was not new. Perhaps the minie ball was useful in improving rate of fire over conventional rifles because the bullet could be loaded loose and then the expanding skirt provided a tight fit when firing?

    Afterthought: wikipedia is a problematic source, but they have this: which includes a similar opinion to my speculation above.

  6. First day of the Somme, 60,000 casualties,20,000 dead. The record for killed in one day, I suppose goes to Cannae.

  7. As it turns out Buckles was born in Bethany, MO, just about 20 miles from my hometown. Ironically, thought the towns now both have about the same population as then, the counties themselves probably had just over 3 times the population. Between the 1920 and the 1930 census, everyone left their small farms for the city. Can’t blame’em.

    I often think about all those WWI vets seeing France and contemplating returning to the backward little burg they came from. I know what I would do.

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