When I was a child, I learned there was a hugely important event called “World War I.” Decades later, the war continued to touch my own family, even as the resulting political fault-lines set the stage for World War II and other 20th-century international conflicts.
Many recognized men fought in this war—-Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt’s son Quentin, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Joyce Kilmer (who wrote the poem “Trees”). Another soldier, known only to a few people, was my great-uncle, Paul Eason, who joined the American Expeditionary Forces in France. On June 4, 1918, this Midwestern boy arrived in France where he encountered the hellish experiences of that particular war.
One hundred years ago, on July 18, 1918, Uncle Paul died near Soissons, France. He was a Private First Class in the U.S. First Infantry Division, which fought in the Allied counter-offensive to the Second Battle of the Marne, driving the German Army back from its closest approach to the city of Paris.
Even after sixty and more years, my grandmother Nellie Eason Bourland mourned the absence of her younger brother. Her two older brothers and her husband had also served in the war, and they returned alive, although they did not speak much about their own wartime experiences. Paul was the baby of the family, who had enlisted at the age of 17 with his parents’ permission.
No one now alive ever knew Uncle Paul, but we heard the story of his death. My grandfather, who never met Paul, used to say: “He poked his head up from a trench and was hit in the forehead by a piece of shrapnel, just under the front of his helmet, and killed instantly.” We don’t know if that’s what happened, or whether that was a story meant to console his family that he didn’t suffer.
Thanks to detailed U.S. military records, my father obtained a copy of a handwritten letter from Paul’s older brother George. Writing from Neuwied in occupied Germany on December 17, 1918, George asks for:
A little information of wich [sic] I can find no other way of getting except through you. That is the exact spot or near about where my Brother is buried. . . . It was my mother’s wish that I look up the place and to find out in what way [Paul] was killed. If you know and can let me know so that I’ll have a chance of visiting the place it will be appreciated.
Paul’s body was buried in a temporary trench-site near where he fell on the battlefield. Then, like the bodies of so many thousands of other young men, it was moved to a more official location.
Finally, Paul’s remains were repatriated to the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery near St. Louis, Missouri. My grandfather used to recount how he attended the burial service there in May 1921, holding his infant daughter Jane in his arms next to my grandmother and her parents and brothers as they all wept once again.
In 2012, my husband Tim and I followed in the footsteps of my great-uncle George, touring the area where Paul had died near Soissons. We visited the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery, and talked with a researcher-guide about the movements of the U.S. First Division in July 1918. We were amazed at the sincere gratitude this thirty-something graduate student expressed on behalf of all the French people for the participation of the American troops.
Looking around, who would guess that these sunny, rolling fields of champagne grapes were once completely littered with trenches, barbed wire, and booby traps? How could we begin to visualize the three-week long battle that left over 250,000 men dead or wounded?
This spring, we listened to all six episodes of “Blueprint for Armaggedon,” Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast about World War I (highly recommended). Over 23 hours of narration he describes the political climate, military decisions, and absolutely horrendous conditions for all the armies involved: heavy artillery bombardments, creeping mustard gas, flamethrowers, and mud just the right consistency to drown a man.
The events of World War I bring up ethical dilemmas that challenge our stereotypes of right and wrong. How can we assess the continuing effects of
- the psychological damage to generations of nations?
- the killing and maiming of so many young adult men?
- the ruination of agricultural lands and the destruction of iconic buildings and cities?
- the ideologies that changed political systems for good?
- the “modern” forms of warfare that de-humanized combatants and civilians?
I suppose my blog post is a sort of “text of terror,” a term coined by scholar Phyllis Trible to explain the purpose of re-telling biblical stories of violence, degradation, and grief. My interest in learning about Uncle Paul is not to valorize my family as particularly patriotic, nor to idolize the American military response while demonizing the German imperialist advances. Instead, I want to reflect on his short life as he lived in the midst of the much larger historical events in order to figure out my own life’s meaning in my 21st century context. How can I follow Christ with integrity when faced with the moral dilemmas of this age? What am I called to do? To speak? To love? Even to be willing to die for?