An inherited legacy of military service

31961410_10155612788843233_2659213290328031232_nAmerica has always been haunted by its wars—by a sense that the accumulated dead of all its past wars stand in moral judgement of our current state of affairs, as in the 1919 French film J’Accuse where the war dead literally rise from their graves and march on the towns and villages of France to stand in silent accusation of their friends and family who have betrayed their memory.

The dead of previous wars set an all-but-unattainable ideal of sacrifice for the living—an ideal most keenly felt by the young, who were possessed of a burning imperative to prove themselves, to measure their mettle against the hallowed example of their forefathers. In many cases this imperative was instilled and nurtured from childhood. Innumerable American doughboys of 1917-18 grew up sitting at their grandfathers’ feet, listening to tales of Shilo and Gettysburg—just as their grandfathers, as children, had listened to tales of Tippicanoe or New Orleans from their own grandfathers before them.  One can well imagine the shocking reality that awaited such soldiers on the Western Front, whose grand-fathers’ war stories could not have prepared them for long-range heavy artillery, chlorine gas, machine guns or aeroplanes, to mention only the most obvious aspects of the new warfare.1776_sm

Yet other aspects of 1914-18 were little changed from previous wars, and this was particularly true for Appenheimer and the many thousands of other soldiers from all nations who served in the supply units. Appenheimer’s primary duties of hauling rations and ammunition into the front lines by wagon and mule-team were essentially the same as they had always been. To be sure, the addition of heavy artillery, machine guns and strafing aircraft made hauling ammunition by wagon more perilous than in earlier wars—sufficiently perilous that he, and many other teamsters, were decorated for valor under fire. But the basic equipment—wagon, harness and mules—was more or less unchanged from the days of the Revolutionary War.


Going to war for Americans had never been much removed from ordinary daily life, particularly on the frontier, where farming, hunting and fighting were all in a day’s work.  The farmer leaving his cabin to toil in his cornfield took his musket along with his hoe as a matter of course.  Similarly, for Alpheus Appenheimer—an ordinary farmer from Illinois—sailing off to a world war in Europe was not as exotic as he might have imagined. In the end he was still just doing what he had always done, and what his father and grandfathers before him had always done: harnessing a team of mules to a wagon and driving them down a country road.

And as for soldiers, so too for the women, who were as haunted by war as the men. Alpheus’ mother, Olive Witcher Appenheimer—who  as a small girl had grown up listening to the war stories of two older brothers and two brothers-in-law, all of whom served in the Union Army—sent her own two sons off in 1918 to fight in France. For such American mothers—who must have numbered in the tens of thousands, at least—the emotions of past and present wars would have been inextricably mingled.  Waiting by a window for a man or boy to return from war was very little changed in 1918 from what it had been in 1865, or in 1781.


Not that women in wartime had nothing better to do than to wait by windows. If a woman in 1917 were free of other obligations, she could serve in France in a number of capacities, whether in one of the armed services, or as a wartime nurse near the front. But rural women rarely possessed such freedom. Keeping a farm afloat in wartime, when the farmer himself was overseas, and especially if children were to be looked after, was about as much as any woman could manage.  Yet farm women across America found ways to assist the war effort in addition to their full-time responsibilities. Olive Appenheimer served as head of the local chapter of Women’s Relief Corps (a woman’s auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic) during the war, and her daughter-in-law, America, volunteered for the Red Cross.

Both Alpheus and America were descended from a long line of men and women who had fought in and lived through three centuries of America’s wars, from the 1630s 0s onward. Much of this warfare took place on America’s frontiers, and both Alpheus and America had personal ties to such frontiers themselves.  America was born in 1897 in a one-room log cabin near Wolf Creek, Kentucky, on land her family had homesteaded in the 1780s, not long after it was first opened up by Daniel Boone. As for Alpheus, he was born—as he liked to tell his grandchildren—in a woodchuck hole: a one-room sod dugout on the Kansas frontier in 1891.

To understand their individual responses to the declaration of war in 1917, it is necessary to know something of the legacy of war which each of them inherited. The possession of such a legacy was not unusual in 1917. Thousands of American boys sailing off to war in 1917-18 had fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers, and more distant ancestors who had fought in earlier American wars. Evidence of their bracing example on the young soldiers can often be found in their letters home, where a grandfather’s participation in a Civil War battle is often alluded to. The legacy of their forefathers established a mark to be lived up to (as well as not to fall below): it was, perhaps, a chief reason the green American soldiers tended to give such a good account of themselves when first coming under German fire in France.