A century ago this month the Great War erupted in Europe. Country after country entered the conflict that would dismantle empires and realign power structures across the globe, with effects resonating to the present day.
In the pages of the Chattanooga Daily Times, short headlines noted the cascade of battles across nations in the old continent. Opinion pages thanked God that America had the Atlantic Ocean to buffer its shores from the madness over there.
Mostly, people seemed more concerned with women’s suffrage, looming alcohol prohibition and the unrest south of our border in the Mexican Revolution.
Today there are few, if any, local celebrations or memorials to those lost in World War I. More than 10,000 area men went overseas when America engaged three years into the war. At least 204 local men died in the two years of fighting, according to the book “Hamilton County’s Part in Winning World War I.”
“There is nothing at all,” said Patty Petty, Chattanooga Area Veterans Council president and U.S. Navy veteran, of current ceremonies or commemorations. “We were not a power even to be reckoned with,” she said of the U.S. role at the war’s beginning.
The nation had little major international combat experience at that point. Since the U.S. Civil War there had only been fighting in the Spanish-American War, a bout that lasted less than a year.
Today, the Tennessee Legislature has established a nine-member Great War Commission that will “collect, compile, index and arrange all data” related to Tennessee’s part in the great World War.
The commission was established on June 28 but its nine positions have not yet been filled, said Blake Fontenay, spokesman for Tennessee Secretary of State Tré Hargett.
Petty said that if there are going to be memorials or ceremonies, many will likely come in 2017, when America’s involvement reaches its century mark.
Leading into last year’s 150th anniversary of local Civil War battles, a similar commission held events and memorials across the state. The observance culminated in a symposium here that brought in hundreds of experts and enthusiasts.
A World War I Canadian soldier, center, comforts a Belgian child whose mother was killed by an enemy shell in Mons, Belgium. The child, who was in its mother’s arms, was wounded in the attack. The father is seen at right. Mons was eventually liberated by Canadian troops on Nov. 11, 1918, ending its Hundred Days campaign.
Though it is a century more recent, why does World War I not elicit a similar response?
At least four factors contribute to the scant attention paid to the conflict, said University of Tennessee history department head professor Ernie Freeburg:
• The relatively small number of war dead compared to the Civil War and World War II.
• The relatively brief amount of time for American involvement.
• The almost immediate souring of American opinion after the war.
• Its quick overshadowing by the total warfare of World War II and the ensuing Cold War.
But the paradox is that while the war receives little remembrance here, its effects set the stage for most major conflicts in the 20th century, said University of Tennessee history professor Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, director of the university’s Center for the Study of War.
“Without World War I, no collapse of the Ottoman Empire, no Nazis, no Hitler, no Stalin, no World War II, no Cold War,” Liulevicius said. “There are few aspects of our current world politics that are not affected by World War I.”
When fighting broke out in July and August 1914, opinion over here skewed sharply in favor of isolationism, say historians. Among those who did want to enter the war, whose side we should be on was up for heated debate.
Over a series of incidents, propaganda and political prodding, the country did raise an army and come to the aid of the Allies in 1917. Historians widely agree the push helped end the war.
The bulk of German descendants here wanted to side with Kaiser Wilhelm II, King of Prussia and thereby the German Empire. Some Irish immigrants agreed, Liulevicius said. With a deep loyalty to Ireland’s independence and hatred for British rule, they had reason to want to see the British fail.
But Jewish immigrants and their descendants who recently had suffered the lash of the Russian and Eastern European pogroms wanted to side against Russia. With the Allies consisting of Russia, France and Great Britain, fighting against the Germans and others, loyalties here were fractured.
Before the start of World War II, there was at least one commemoration marking the conclusion of first world war.
On Nov. 11, 1929, the 10th anniversary of the war’s end, the Chattanooga Daily Times printed a special section that listed the names of all of the local dead and 10,000 who served.
Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...