This is Living Stories, featuring voices from the collections of the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. I'm Kim Patterson.
The First World War—or the Great War or World War, as it was known until 1939—began in the summer of 1914, sparked by the assassination of the archduke of Austria, but widespread imperialism was the fundamental cause of the conflict. The United States entered the war in April 1917, and more than four million Americans would serve in uniform in some capacity over the next year and a half.
Waco native Mary Sendón had three uncles who served in World War I: one in the States, one in France, and one in Italy. She remembers the one stationed in France:
"My Uncle Phillip was given six weeks training at Fort Sam [Houston] and then rushed right into the trenches. And he was in two of the big battles there, one that was in the Argonne Forest and the other one was Château-Thierry. And when they got into the Argonne Forest, his detachment was lost, got strayed away from the main unit, and he was reported missing in action. That was the worst day of our lives, I guess, in our house, because we got the telegram that he was missing in action. Of course, my grandmother knew that he was dead. That was all she could think of. And I'll tell you, you have no idea what a—what a situation was in our family at that time. It was the most depressing years that I can remember. And he was lost for a long time.
"And all of a sudden we got a telegram—it was from the War Department. They had found him. And, you know, we came home from school—my sister and I came home from school that day, and I think I was in high school by that time. My sister and I, we got almost to our house and we heard all this noise of people. We walked into that house, and they—all of the men had quit work and come home and they had some of their friends there, and they were just having the best time because my Uncle Phillip was alive. And, of course, he was—they put him in the Army of Occupation in Germany and he stayed a little while longer after the war, but he liked it in Germany. He said they treated him like a king."
But Sendón explains that her uncle's homecoming had a dark cloud hanging over it:
"The Germans started using mustard gas the very last of the war, and he got a whiff of mustard gas. And it didn't show. They sent the boys to the hospital, but they said, I don't think you—they didn't get enough of it to bother. And after one year it began to show, and everybody thought he had tuberculosis. And, oh, it was—it was bad. And he was gone within a year."
W. W. Naman of Waco served in France in World War I and volunteered to study observation posts with the French artillery corps. He recalls climbing up a tree in an open meadow to check out one observation spot:
"I couldn't see anything. I wondered what in the world he brought me up here for; I couldn't see anything. So I inquired about it, and he said, ‘Well, you see that tree over there?' which was about three hundred yards, I guess, or two hundred, a tree not unlike the one we were in. He said, ‘There's a German observer over there.' (laughter) He said, ‘He's been over there and I've been over here for months, and we don't fire on one another. There's no use of it. We just—we both know we're out here observing and that's all there is to it.' He said, ‘We have an understanding.'"
By the time the war ended in November of 1918, more than 110,000 members of the American military had died, many from the Spanish Flu, and another 200,000 had been wounded. One legacy of the war is that America's involvement dramatically expanded the size of the US government and military.
Living Stories is heard on 103 point 3 FM, Waco's NPR. For full transcripts of the interviews featured in this segment, or for more information about the Institute for Oral History, visit baylor.edu/livingstories.
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