This coming Sunday is a milestone. It is not just Veterans’ Day, but is also the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One.
Being perennially curious about all things historical, I started doing some research about the war. I was lucky to stumble across the website for the “United States World War One Centennial Commission” (https://www.worldwar1centennial.org/index.php). This organization has gathered information about anniversary commemorations around the country, but also has pages and pages of interesting background information about the war and its aftermath.
This was a war of many firsts. Many of these "firsts" had a huge impact on our country. You can find many sources describing the military and technological advances (wrist watch, anyone?) which occurred during the war. WWI also produced cultural firsts, including societal groups who were involved in a war for the first time. The U.S. “Doughboys” fighting overseas were a much more diverse group than in previous wars. Immigrants served next to blue bloods. Native Americans served next to the sons of settlers. Grandsons of Civil War soldiers served next to grandsons of slaves. ( Interestingly, one thing didn’t change. The average WWI soldier was about the same size – 5 feet 7 ½ inches and 141.5 pounds – as one of those Civil War soldiers, but a little shorter and lighter than a WWII soldier would be.) The additional details provided about the various segments of soldiers are worth a read.
In addition, while men have always served in times of war, this was the first U.S. war in which women served. According to the organization’s website, the new Army Nurse Corps counted 20,000 women in its ranks. This included 10,000 female nurses who served overseas caring for 200,000 wounded U.S. soldiers. Since many of the nurses were positioned near the front lines, they experienced artillery and gas attacks right along with the soldiers. When the influenza epidemic raged through Europe, 200 of these nurses died caring for sick soldiers.
Women served in other groups for the first time, too. The Army Signal Corps had about 400 women known as “Hello Girls” serving in France as telephone operators. The Navy had a tough time competing with the Army for the people they needed, so they recruited 11,000 women known as “Yeomanettes” to work in a variety of support roles. Not just clerical staff, these women also worked as electricians, mechanics, drivers, etc. The Marine Corps and Coast Guard recruited women to serve as well.
These numbers do not include the thousands of women who volunteered in other ways, such as for the Red Cross or the Salvation Army. And of course, with a large portion of the male population gone, many women backfilled their jobs on the home front.
Most of these women were expected to return to their “normal” life after the war. It must have been difficult for some of them. (There was a popular song to this effect right after WWI called “How Ya Gonna Keep’em Down on the Farm After They’ve Seen Paree?” which was surely directed at the returning soldiers, but must have resonated with the women as well.) However, their war service did have one unexpected benefit. It helped convince President Woodrow Wilson and other men in the US that these women who contributed so much during the war deserved the right to vote, thus setting up the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Yet another “first” resulting in part from WWI.
So I hope each one of us takes a little time on Sunday to reflect on the day’s meaning. It is always good to honor our military heroes on Veteran’s Day. As a first this year, perhaps we can also remember the day’s importance 100 years ago and the effect WWI had on our grandparents and great-grandparents.
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