One hundred years, one month and 27 days ago, the U.S. Congress declared war on Germany and officially entered into what was then called The Great War. Although the United States troops were relative latecomers to the conflict, it’s still unlikely that many Americans who served in World War I would consider it “great” in any fashion.
The war would come to be known for some of the most abysmal fighting conditions ever known by mankind. Trench warfare and chemical weapons like mustard gas covered much of Europe. Even 100 years later, the battlefields are still preserved carefully, to ensure that any residual canisters that may still lie hidden are not accidentally discharged.
In the relatively short amount of time the United States spent in World War I, from 1917-1918, more than 115,000 Americans were killed, among the 4.7 million U.S. service members overall.
On this Memorial Day, to be able to stand in the same locations our predecessors stood 100 years ago, it’s a stark reminder of the tremendous impact these men and women had at home and abroad.
But their service and their legacy live on today, as we, and several of our students, will see firsthand as we travel to Europe to retrace the experiences of some of the individuals who came before us.
Over the past three years, we’ve focused on the 715 members of the Bucknell University community who served and have learned incredible stories of selflessness and sacrifice. And now we’ve traveled to battlefields and grown closer to the Bucknellians who put their lives on hold in order to serve.
Student Anthony Paolella chose to research George Wilson Potts, Class of 1913; Potts was one of the 40 Bucknellians who gave their life to the effort. Julia Carita chose to study Thomas W. Agnew, who served in the ambulance corps and earned the French Croix de Guerre with a bronze star before returning and graduating in 1920.
Amy Collins researched 1st Lieutenant Charles O’Brien, who, in September 1918, despite a serious leg wound, continued to lead his men until felled, and received the Distinguished Service Cross posthumously. And Julia Stevens focused on Katherine Baker, who served as a nurse alongside the French troops. She worked so tirelessly that a building of the Henri Rollet Association for at-risk children outside of Paris is dedicated to her.
These stories are just a few of the men and women who served in WWI, but they encapsulate the stories of all service members, across all wars and across all generations so well.
Among other stops, our team will also travel to Varennes-en-Argonne, where the state of Pennsylvania erected and still maintains a monument to commemorate all of the state’s soldiers, sailors, and Marines who served and gave their lives in France.
In wars that were fought thousands of miles away from our shores, it’s easy to lose sight of the impact these men and women had at home and abroad.
On this Memorial Day, to be able to stand in the same locations our predecessors stood 100 years ago, it’s a stark reminder of the tremendous task placed before them.
We’re honored to have the opportunity to remember them in this fashion, thanks in large part to their answering that call.
David Del Testa is associate professor of history at Bucknell University and Adrian Mulligan is associate professor of geography at Bucknell University. Both serve as advisors for the Bucknellians in WWI project