Tomorrow is the anniversary of the end of World War I, which was known as the Great War in Europe at the time because no one knew then that there would be an even more destructive war.

The senseless slaughter snuffed out the lives of millions at the Marne and at the Somme, at Ypres and at Verdun, and at countless other places both large and small where opposing armies fought bitter battles for little gain.

It had begun as a war of maneuver but soon bogged down in the stalemate of trench warfare, trenches that were muddy and miserable when the weather was bad and infested with rats regardless of whether the weather was good or bad.

From the safety of headquarters in the rear, beyond the range of enemy artillery, unimaginative and unscrupulous generals ordered assault after assault, notwithstanding the fact that the lethal combination of barbed wire, which made it difficult to advance, and machine guns, which could fire hundreds of rounds a minute, made "going over the top" into the no-man’s land separating the trenches of the opposing armies a virtual death sentence.

By the time the guns finally fell silent at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the war had claimed more than 15 million lives, 8 million of them civilians.

Those who fought in this bloody affair have all passed on. I am old enough, however, to have known a few World War I veterans. One of them was Haakon Isaacson, who lived down the road a piece from the farm in Montana where I grew up.

I do not know where he fought or what he did during the war. That was something he never talked about. I do know, however, that he was on the front line. My father said that Haakon had been gassed during the war, resulting in permanent respiratory damage.

When I knew him, he was retired after having worked as a baker in a nearby town. My father had a couple of milk cows. Haakon would stop by from time to time to buy cream for his yappy little dog, the most spoiled little dog I have ever encountered. Sometimes Haakon would bring along cream puffs he had baked and leave them with us. They were the best cream puffs I have ever had the opportunity to taste.

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Haakon was quite strongly opinionated. He asserted that the government should provide health insurance for everyone so that no one had to go without health care because they didn’t have the money to pay for it.

This was during the McCarthy era, a time when congressional committees were investigating anyone suspected of being a communist. Somehow word of Haakon’s controversial views made its way to Washington, and he was summoned to appear before a committee investigating those suspected of being communists.

Haakon did not have the money needed to travel to Washington. Fortunately, the member of Congress representing the western Montana congressional district, upon hearing that Haakon had been summoned to testify, offered to represent him at the committee hearing, which was the end of the matter.

Wesley Cathcart was another World War I veteran whose path crossed mine. I met him several years ago when I was doing research for a book I was writing on generations. He was living in Galva at the time.

He was born Oct. 11, 1897, in a sod house with a dirt floor on the plains of Kansas. His grandfather, who served in the Union Army during the Civil War, married his grandmother before he left to go to war. She was 13 at the time, though they didn’t have children until after the war.

Wesley enlisted in the U.S. Army in Davenport five months after President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany to make the world "safe for democracy." Assigned to the 11th U.S. Infantry Regiment, part of the Fifth Division, he served in an ammunition convoy during the thick of the Meuse-Argonne offensive. They traveled at night to escape enemy fire.

The armistice found the Fifth Division knee-deep in mud in the Woevre Forest near the village of Jametz in northeastern France. Unlike other sectors, there was no fraternizing with their German adversaries once the shooting stopped.

As I was leaving, Wesley noted sadly, "It was to have been the war to end all war, but it didn’t." And indeed it did not.

Daniel E. Lee is the Marian Taft Cannon Professor in the Humanities at Augustana; danlee@augustana.edu.


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