Over this weekend and with a federal holiday on Monday, the nation honors Veterans Day, originally known as Armistice Day, to mark the end of World War I on Nov. 11, 1918.
Its easy to forget American involvement in World War I, though public interest picked up during its centennial. The American role in the war simply lacked the drama or the sweeping victories of the Civil War or World War II. To some, American involvement in World War I remains a mistake and an argument can be made that the rise of Soviet Russia and of Nazi Germany would have been far different — and perhaps would never have taken place — had America not entered the war in early 1917. The fact that hundreds of thousands of men fought for four years on the Western Front in massive lines of trenches, battling over inches and yards, remains almost incomprehensible a century later. Despite fine efforts from historians, including Norman Stone and Prit Buttar’s recent magisterial series on the topic, the Eastern Front remains elusive for many of us despite its undoubted importance, especially with the Russian revolution and events in the Balkans.
While Florida housed some naval bases in the war, the Great War, as it was called, did not impact the Sunshine State the way that other conflicts — namely World War II — did. But reading information on the fallen and going through the 39 rolls of information at the National Archives on the men drafted from Florida holds more than its share of human interest.
Almost 200 Floridians who lost their lives during World War I are buried in seven American military cemeteries in France. A stunningly high percentage of the young men from Florida who lost their lives were killed in the final weeks of the war in late October and early November 1918. Some of the doughboys from the Sunshine State, buried in France, died in 1919 — victims of their wounds and the influenza epidemic that swept the world after the war.
Even the ones who survived the war were not always lucky. During the Great Depression, hundreds of former doughboys would head to veteran camps throughout the state, looking for work. In the hurricane that swept through Key West in 1935, an estimated 250 veterans of the war lost their lives.
Like the war they fought in, Americas veterans of World War I have often been overlooked and the last one passed away in February 2011. While it may be easy to forget the war, Florida and the rest of the nation should never forget the Americans whose lives were forever impacted — and far too many ended — by World War I and its aftermath.
“Time will not dim the glory of their deeds,” noted Gen. John J. Pershing of the Americans lost in World War I. A century after the guns went silent, Pershing’s words still hold true.