A century after the armistice ending World War I, the conflict between the British Empire, France, Italy, Russia, Serbia, the United States and the Central Powers including Germany, the Austria-Hungary Empire, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire has appeared to be overshadowed by the history surrounding World War II.
The stories of many of these local veterans were largely lost in time.
But for Allen Jackson, a local historian who has researched the personal lives and stories of many East Tennessean veterans who found themselves in the midst of this battle between empires, the sacrifices made during the war have not been forgotten.
Jackson, a retired U.S. Air Force veteran, has delved into the lives of about 60 Washington County residents who lost their lives in the conflict. In total, he has conducted years of independent research on the lives of 351 veterans who gave their lives from the Great War to the present.
“I started putting together profile pieces with all of their information, and I started writing their bios,” he said. “I did 26 years in service. I’ve been in a lot and seen a lot.
“When I write these guys’ stories, I see what they suffered and went through.”
In June, Jackson’s eight-year quest to find the remains of one particular Washington County native and World War I U.S. Army veteran ended at the Deansboro Village Cemetery in Kirkland, New York. Through Jackson’s research, local residents learned a lot about local veterans like Pvt. James Miller, a Jonesborough native who served in France as a wagoner for the 16th Infantry Regiment Supply company.
Born in 1896, Miller grew up in the Lamar Community of Jonesborough. After his mother’s death in 1911, Miller’s father moved the family to Alabama, where Miller later befriended some soldiers from Missouri. When it was time for the soldiers to go back to Missouri, Miller went with them at the age of 17 and lied about his age to enlist in the U.S. Army.
When the U.S. reluctantly entered the war, Miller was sent to France, where he was assigned to Company M, 16th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Battalion, 1st Infantry Brigade, 1st Expeditionary Division. Miller survived brutal campaigns including the Mondider-Noyon Operation, Aisne-Marne Offensive, St. Mihiel Offensive and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive — the bloodiest U.S.-involved campaign, with more than 26,000 deaths and 120,000 total American casualties in a span of just seven weeks. Despite making it through this campaign, Miller tragically died of pneumonia at the age of 22, just over a month before the armistice was signed.
Miller was just one of many from Northeast Tennessee who served during the Great War, and many young men — younger than Miller at the time of the war — lied about their ages to enlist, according to East Tennessee State University Historian Stephen Fritz, who said most of the deaths during the war were young men ages 17-25.
Many involved in the fighting were born at or after 1900 at the time that the U.S. entered the war in 1917.
“The overwhelming majority fell into that 17-25 age group. You can see the scope of that impact,” Fritz said.
The 116,516 Americans lost in the last year of the war shook the nation, according to Fritz.
“Most of them were killed in the last six months of the war,” Fritz pointed out. “The Americans in the last six months of the war were experiencing casualty rates not much different than the European armies. This would’ve been a profound shock to a country that hadn’t experienced that kind of loss of life since the Civil War.”
According to the “Record of Ex-Soldiers in World War I, Tennessee Counties, 1917-1919,” online at the Tennessee Virtual Archive (goo.gl/xMjXkr), more than 4,400 residents of Washington, Sullivan, Unicoi, Carter and Johnson counties served during the war.
Fritz said it is important to remember the sacrifices made in the Great War, a conflict that killed more than 20 million combatants and civilians in total.
“World War I, in some respects, was much more complex and nuanced than World War II. Coming out of World War I, you have a situation where the Germans lost, but they didn’t feel like they lost. The French won the war, but with such a loss of life, it was a victory that felt like a defeat. There was a sense of unresolved issues after WWI,” Fritz said.
“The lesson I would draw is not necessarily a positive one. It’s difficult to end wars on a positive note; there are rarely clear victors,” he added.
World War I by the numbers:
More than 20 million combatants and civilians lost their lives in the fighting.
116,516 Americans lost their lives in WWI, most in the last six months of the war.
The majority of combatant casualties in the war were between ages 17-25.
The U.S. mobilized over 4 million Americans after entering the war in 1917.
More than 350,000 African-Americans served during the war, and 171 were awarded the French Legion of Honor for fighting in campaigns alongside the French.