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Post My Father in WWI
Created by John Eipper on 09/22/14 6:16 AM

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My Father in WWI (Robert Whealey, USA, 09/22/14 6:16 am)

John E asked for WAISers to write about ancestors who served in World War I. I think I already wrote a small account of my father's experience. He was drafted in April 1917, at age 23, from Long Island City, New York. He was sent to France in September 1918 from Savannah, Georgia to Brest, France. He served in an elite unit known at the Military Transport Corps (MTC).  The MTC had the duty to drive new trucks up to the front. He was stationed in Dijon, Nancy and Metz. He survived the flu at 106 degrees F in a French hospital. He never got back to New York Harbor until September 1919.

Howard E. Whealey was no hero. He heard cannon firing in the distance but never carried a rifle. He was discharged as Private E-1, the same rank with which he had entered the service.  What he learned from the service was that above the rank of Captain or Major, the army also has a political dimension. He learned with only an 8th grade diploma, an understanding of history from experience, which indirectly led me in college in 1950 into thinking about the Korean War, politics, economics, and history as intellectual disciplines.

JE comments:  Instilling a love of learning makes Pvt Whealey a hero in my book!  I could say a similar thing about my grandfather, Walter Eipper (1908-1986).  His formal education stopped at the sixth grade, but he was an avid reader of history--and a numismatist.  Both of these traits wore off on me--as well as Grandpa's uncanny ability to stay out of war.  (He was too young for WWI and just barely too old for WWII.)

Pvt Whealey was one of the lucky ones:  the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918-19 killed more US service personnel than did German bullets and shells.  This same pandemic made Walter Eipper an orphan at age 10.

Here's an earlier note from Robert Whealey about his father, posted in May 2009:


For WAISer Great War ancestors, so far we have Nigel Jones, David Pike, Ed Jajko, and Robert Whealey.  Certainly we have overlooked several more.

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  • War Heroism (Eugenio Battaglia, Italy 09/22/14 2:32 PM)
    Maybe I am wrong, but I noticed a hint of disappointment in Robert Wealey's post (22 September) about his father's experience in WWI.

    Not everybody has the luck to become a great hero leading his men to victory through enemy fire. But this great hero could not have carried out his duties unless Robert's father had not carried him to the front, also carrying his weapons, food, water, medicine, etc.

    In short, Robert's father performed a vital task for his country's victory.

    In Italy's good old days, the Decalogue of the Militiaman stated as Point 3:

    "The Country is also served by standing watch over a barrel of gasoline."

    This was stressed because too many, with enthusiasm, wanted to be on the front lines.

    My mother, during the war, would tell me that I too could serve our country and do my duty as a schoolboy, by not complaining about the necessary restrictions and inconveniences while doing whatever possible to help the soldiers, such as collecting scrap iron, wool, etc.

    JE comments: And in the United States, it was WWII Victory Gardens, Meatless Mondays, and buying war bonds. Come to think of it, tonight at WAIS HQ will probably be a meatless Monday...

    I've had the chance to get to know Robert Whealey, and I believe he called his father "no hero" to question the whole concept of military glory.  There's a tinge of Wilfred Owen in Robert's post:


    He of course will correct me if I've misunderstood.

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    • War Heroism; on Armistice Day (Robert Whealey, USA 09/23/14 3:20 PM)
      In response to Eugenio Battaglia (22 September), my father was not disappointed with his experience in WWI. He was not bitter. He was glad that the American Army carried on to the Armistice of 11 November 1918. I accompanied him to the VFW and Legion Parades in 1935 at age 5.

      I stood at attention, when a symbolic cannon was fired on November 11, 1940 and 1941. That ceremony was canceled in the US in 1942 during the Second World War. In 1955 General Eisenhower changed Armistices Day to Veterans Day, which was one of his mistakes. Historians should celebrate the peace days of 1815, 1919, May 1945 and August 1945.

      JE comments: The switch from Armistice Day to Veterans Day in the US was the last nail in the coffin of this nation's memory of WWI.  This is unfortunate, but Eisenhower's decision was the logical thing to do, given the millions of WWII veterans in 1955 who deserved to be honored.

      See, for example, Richard Rubin's The Last of the Doughboys:  The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War (2013).  The title says it all.  (In the early 2000s, Rubin did something extraordinary:  he tracked down several dozen of the last surviving US WWI veterans.  They were all over 100 when he interviewed them; all have died since.  It's an informative, honest, touching, and at times humorous book, which literally will never be superseded.)

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      • Armistice Day (David Fleischer, Brazil 09/24/14 2:04 AM)
        The Europeans take the Great War very seriously. In October 1997, my wife and I traveled for one week in the interior of France, in the Valley of the Loire. We visited many small parish churches, and in every one there was a big plaque with the names of the parish faithful who had died in WWI--but no such plaque for those who had died in WWII.

        I happened to be in the UK on 11 November 2000. I took a bus from Oxford to Heathrow early in the morning, so as to catch a Delta flight back to New York. I arrived at the Delta check-in line around 10:50, and at exactly as 11:00 the loudspeakers announced 5 minutes of silence (Remembrance Day). Everyone "froze," even the Delta personnel. The Armistice was signed at 11:00 am on 11/11/1918--in a railroad car in Western France.

        When the French surrendered to the Germans in 1940, Hitler had them find the same railroad car (from 1918) for the French surrender.

        Ike should have found another date to celebrate Veterans Day.

        JE comments: Agreed on the Ike recommendation.  The only Armistice Day that found me in Europe was eons ago in neutral Spain.  Someday I'd like to spend the 11th in France or the UK--although in my business, 11/11 always falls during the semester's crunch time, the pre-Thanksgiving rush.  Perhaps if I can plan it carefully, I can catch the True Centennial--11/11/18.

        "Mort pour la France" is a feature of every parish church.  One senses that in 1945, France had no stomach or budget for a new series of plaques--and possibly no small amount of shame for the nation's performance in 1940.

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    • Wilfred Owen (Eugenio Battaglia, Italy 09/23/14 4:13 PM)
      Following up on my post of 22 September, I will never agree with the poet Wilfred Owen, who wrote that Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori is an old lie. Instead, I would say that it is the basis for the survival of a nation.

      Of course in some instances it may be difficult. For me pro patria mori is good, but to die for this Italy ("lay, democratic and antifascist born from the resistance"--and corrupt) would cause me some irritation. The hope is anyway that Italians will someday again be proud and ready to fulfill their duties.

      JE comments: Patton, or maybe it was George C. Scott, said that the object of war is "not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his." Today's mindset is more prone to letting someone else do the dying for your country. Or perhaps it was always that way: US Civil War troops complained that they were in a "rich man's war and a poor man's fight."

      In the Rupert Brooke-Wilfred Owen battle of the WWI poets, Owen's grim disillusionment has won out over Brooke's old-school celebrations of sacrifice.  Indeed, the death of traditional "glory" may be the most lasting legacy of WWI--besides the contemporary Middle East.  Eugenio Battaglia would no doubt prefer the verses of Brooke.

      WAISer Nigel Jones is a Brooke biographer, and also contributed to the BBC film Journey to Hell, about Owen.  Nigel has been MIA from WAIS for several weeks.  Nigel:  we need an intervention!  Would you agree that of the two martyred Great War poets, Owen has "aged" more gracefully?

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      • Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke (Nigel Jones, -UK 09/24/14 1:37 AM)
        Of the two most iconic war poets of WWI, Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen, there is no doubt--as John Eipper pointed out on 23 September--that it is Owen who speaks most loudly and clearly to our war-weary era.

        Both exemplify the two poles of response to the war: Brooke voicing the early idealistic patriotism, while Owen, who died in action a week before the war's end, is the poet of peace and pity.

        Owen's poetry of disillusion, based on his own experience as an officer in the trenches, and suggesting that all war is "Futility" (to quote the title of one of his poems) chimes well with our own age's inclination towards pacifism.

        Nevertheless, war continues. The problem with pacifism is that it only works if both sides are pacifists. If one side--and let us take ISIL as the current example, but it applied equally to the Nazis in WWII and to the more fanatical Communists in the Cold War--are determined to conquer or even slaughter the other side en masse, then pacifism is akin to mass suicide. In that situation war --however terrible--becomes the lesser of two evils.

        I am reminded of the words of the French Resistance writer Jean Dutourd: "War is preferable to slavery: in the end the choice is always between Verdun and Dachau."

        As for Rupert Brooke, it should be remembered that Owen had much more experience of actual war than Brooke, who only saw a couple of days of action in 1914 during Winston Churchill's abortive attempt to relieve Antwerp. He died of septicaemia brought on by an insect bite en route to the bloodbath of Gallipoli in April 1915 and is buried in a lonely but beautiful tomb on the Greek island of Skyros. I have no doubt that had he lived, the tone and content of his poetry would have changed, but it did reflect the mood of the moment of exalted patriotism which seized England--and all European powers--in the summer of 1914.

        Patriotism or Pacifism: there is a place for both, which is why both Brooke and Owen are both remembered.

        On a personal note, I should add that my biography Rupert Brooke: Life, Death and Myth is published in an updated edition this November on the eve of the centenary of his death, while next year I lead a tour of the sites on the western front in France and Flanders associated with the war poets--including the grave of Wilfred Owen--titled "Strange Meetings." The details are on www.historicaltrips.com

        JE comments: Great to hear from Nigel Jones, WAISdom's unchallenged authority on the Great War poets (and on the Great War in general). Niall Ferguson's 1999 book The Pity of War:  Explaining World War I is one of the best one-volume histories of the conflict.  The title comes straight from Owen.  Old-time WAISers will remember that the Great War Greats are in our DNA.  One of the most prolific contributors to the Forum prior to his death in 2006 was Siegfried Sassoon's son George:


        George lived in Scotland, so he's been missed more than ever during our recent discussions on the referendum.

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