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Americans in World War One: History & Stories

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Harlem Hellfighters during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Painting by H. Charles McBarron Jr for National Guard Heritage series

We started celebrating Veteran’s Day on November 11, 1919 as a way to commemorate the first anniversary of Armistice Day, the day that hostilities in World War I ended. In 1926, Congress made Veteran’s Day a national holiday and it has since become a day that we remember all veterans that have served in the United States Armed Forces.

World War I is called "The Great War" but in America it could also be called "The Forgotten War". Compared to four years in WWII, we just weren't in it for very long but it's repercussions are still being felt today. It began in 1914 but the U.S. stayed out of it until April 1917 when President Wilson convinced Congress we should enter the war and fight. By March 1918, the U.S. had 85,000 troops in France and by September 1918 there were 1.2 million. The total troop mobilization for the U.S. was approx. 4.4 million. All told, America was in the war for about a year and a half and lost 116,516 soldiers and just over 204,000 were wounded. During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the last major campaign of the war, over a million Americans participated and over 26,000 were killed. The Battle of the Argonne is still considered the deadliest battle in American military history. However, that's just a drop in the bucket when you consider that the total casualties for the entire war was a little over 37.4 million people (Allies, Central Powers and civilians). On the opening day of the Battle of the Somme alone, Britain lost nearly 20,000 men. Just reading these statistics can leave you dumbfounded by the sheer loss off life and the complete loss of innocence.

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                                                                                  Alwyn Rouyer, Sr. in his uniform, 1917

My grandfather Alwyn Rouyer Sr., of New Orleans, LA., was a veteran of the First World War. He signed up in May 1917 and was a stretcher-bearer attached to the 28th Infantry Regiment/First Army Division as a part of the 25th Medical Battalion. He arrived in France in February 1918 and was in several major battles, including: Chateau-Thierry, Champagne-Marne, St. Mihiel and Argonne Forest. As a stretcher bearer it was his job to go out during and after the battle, in the mud and the muck, to retrieve the wounded in no-man’s land and carry them back to the medical station. In one of the few stories he told my father, during the Argonne he was out in no-man’s land bogged down in a shell hole with his finger in the wound of a "doughboy" (slang for WWI era soldier) when the Germans launched a counter attack and overran his position and he and all these other Americans were taken prisoner and taken back to the German trenches. Then out of nowhere, another American attack overran the German trenches and they were saved.

He died long before I was born but it wasn’t until recently that I really began to appreciate the horror he must have gone through and the devastation he must have seen. So much bravery and so much death. I like to think there were men who made it home because he went out into no-man’s land and brought them back to safety.

New York Public Library has a lot of great books and databases on World War I and America’s involvement in the war, here are just a few:

Non-Fiction:

world war

First World War by John Keegan

Keegan, an eminent military historian writes a definitive account of the war that created the modern world. This is my father's favorite history of the war. Their's also a beautiful fully illustrated history of the war by the same author.

 

America

World War One and America: told by the Americans who lived it by A. Scott Berg

A collection of first hand accounts of the war from the battlefront to the homefront by such prominent writers and thinkers as Jane Addans, W.E.B. Dubois, Edith Wharton, Henry Morgenthau, Carrie Chapman and more. 

 

world Remade

The World Undone: the story of The Great War and The World Unmade: America in World War I  both by G.J. Meyer

World Undone is an exhaustive look at the war that transformed Europe and had far reaching repercussions that we are still seeing today. World Remade investigates America's involvement in the war and how it established America as a world power. 

fellow soldiers

 My Fellow Soldiers: General John Pershing and the Americans who helped win the Great War by Andrew Carroll

A rich and moving portrait of the General who led the American forces in Europe during World War I. In addition,  the author includes stories of those who served including the first Americans who enlisted in the French Foreign Legion as well as those who flew with the Lafayette Escadrille.

Cantigny

First Over There: the Attack on Cantigny by Matthew J. Davenport

A description of the events that took place on May 28, 1918, when the United States fought and won its first battle of World War I in Cantigny. Based on letters, diaries and reports by the soldiers themselves.

 

Marne

Rock of the Marne:  the American soldiers who turned the tide against the Kaiser in World War I by Steven L. Harris

The soldiers of the Third U.S. Infantry Division in World War I were outnumbered and inexperienced facing hardened veterans, but their actions proved to be a turning point during the last German offensive of World War I. 

hundred days

Hundred Days: the campaign that ended World War I by Nick Lloyd

The story of the last four months of the war and the bloody Meuse-Argonne Offensive that ended with the Germans surrendering.

 

doughboys

Last of the Doughboys: the forgotten generation and their forgotten world war by Richard Rubin

Collected over ten years, it presents interviews with the last remaining World War I veterans, men and women, aged 101 to 113, to paint a picture of a time and a generation that, despite memorials and history lessons, is quickly fading away.

 

harlem hellfighters

A More Unbending Battle: the Harlem Hellfighters' struggle for freedom in WWI and equality at home by Peter Nelson

Recruited from all walks of Harlem life, the regiment had to fight alongside the French because America's segregation policy prohibited them from fighting with white U.S. soldiers. They became one of the most feared and decorated units of the war. There's also a briliiant graphic novel The Harlem Hellfighters

testament

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

A student at Oxford, Vera left school to be a nurse for the British Army. She served in London, Malta and the Western Front and by war's end she'd lost virtually everyone she loved. This is not just a story of her life but an elegy for lost innocence and a vanished generation. There's a recent film version starring Alicia Vikander and Kit Harrington. 

 

Fiction: 

star

A Star for Mrs. Blake by April Smith

In 1929 the American government began paying for Gold Star mothers and unmarried widows to make pilgrimages to Europe to visit the graves of their loved ones. This is a stirring fictional account of several disparate women who make the trip. 

 

fall

Fall of Giants by Ken Follett

An epic, multi-narrative series that follows the lives of five families--American, German, Russian, English, and Welsh--as they move through the dramas of the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and the struggle for women's suffrage. This is just book one!

 

regeneration

Regeneration by Par Barker

The first in the Regeneration Trilogy and a Booker Prize nominee. This is the fictionalized story of noted poet and war hero Siegfried Sassoon as he refuses to continue serving in a war of "senseless slaughter" and the brilliant psychiatrist who tries to treat him. 

 

poetry

Poetry of the First World War: an anthology ed. Tim Kendall

The First World War produced a prodigious amount of poetry and introduced the world to such soldier poets as Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. The poems are both personal and universal conveying the horror of war and the grief of nations. 

 

farewell

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

The classic love story of World War I that has an American ambulance driver on the Italian front falling for an English nurse.

 

 

Library  Databases:

World at War: covers all major wars — including causes, effects, and involved parties — in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas, from 2000 BCE to the present. 

World History: The Modern Era: covers the history of Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas, from the Reformation to the present.

U.S. History in Context: covers the most-studied U.S. history topics

American History: covers American history from the European conquest to the present day.

World War I: An American Legacy: a documentary streaming on Kanopy

NYPL Archives and Manuscripts: Subject World War I

NYPL Digital Collection: World War I

Online Databases:

National Archives: World War I Centennial

British Library: World War I

Britannica.com: World War I

BBC TV: World War I Centeneary

History on the Net: World War One

firstworldwar.com

PBS.org: The Great War documentary streaming

                                                                              

                                                              My Grandfather, Alwyn Rouyer, Sr. (bottom right corner) & army buddies, 1918.

                                                                               Photo is captioned on back as "Somewhere in France".

 

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