Thursday, March 30, 2017

Remembering Crittenden County in World War I

The fateful day that sealed the doom of more than two dozen Crittenden County men and 116,000 other Americans in World War I is often left to the forgotten pages of history.

Today (Thursday) marks 100 years since the United States joined what until that time had been known here as the “European War.” But when American “doughboys” began shedding their blood on the battlefields of central Europe, the term “World War” was soon adopted.

The brutal war sparked three years earlier by the assassination of Austrian royalty, had long before April 6, 1917, plunged the globe into conflict. It ceased only after claiming the lives of 27 local soldiers and sailors and another 17 million men, women and children from four continents. Another 20 million civilians and military personnel were wounded, many grievously.

The war whose battles were confined primarily to Europe and the Middle East was of little interest to most Americans until Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917. When the empire once again began claiming American ships and lives, war became inevitable.

The Great War, as it was known before World War II, at its height was adding 10,000 Americans a day to the fight. In Crittenden County, an isolated corner of rural Kentucky seemingly unaffected by European matters, few volunteered for duty. Most of the men from here who served – many of them farmers or spar miners – were drafted into Army service. All told, 2.8 million American men were drafted.

When they left Marion for training, it was not without a grand sendoff. On Sept. 12, 1917, the community gathered at the courthouse and marched to the train depot to see off the first group of local draftees, all to the music of the Marion Orchestra. 

“Everybody was there, feeble fathers, gray haired mothers, sisters, brothers and sweet hearts and not a few were the tears shed," reported The Crittenden Record-Press.

The war would drag on another 14 months, ending on Nov. 11, 1918, a date marked each year by Veterans Day. But that war gave us much more than a November holiday.

Man discovered ever-better ways to kill his fellow man, mechanizing war with new weapons like, warplanes, submarines, tanks, flamethrowers, hand grenades and machine guns. It also gave us chemical warfare.

The “War to End All Wars” fueled the rise of an obscure German corporal nearly killed in the war to the most infamous man in modern history. He, of course, was Adolf Hitler, the architect of the Holocaust and another world war that would claim 60 million more lives. It fed the birth of communism in Russia and today’s unrest in the Middle East.

It spelled the end for world powers (Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires), the decline of others (Great Britain) and the rise of both America and Russia/Soviet Union.

The spread of disease through its global nature led to the 1918 “Spanish Flu” pandemic that claimed more lives than the war itself. As many as 40 million died,   including Crittenden Countians not just in uniform, but those on the homefront.

There were notable figures like Lawrence of Arabia, the Red Baron and Gen. John J. Pershing. It introduced us to Winston Churchill and the grave of the Unknown Soldier.
But World War I also did some good. It helped to perfect blood transfusions, plastic surgery, telecommunications, prosthetics, mass production and psychotherapy. It gave us daylight saving time and an increased role for women in America’s future. It introduced us to words and phrases like “shell shocked,” “dud,” “camouflage,” “souvenir” and “ace.”

This war changed everything.

There is no one left today in Crittenden County to share firsthand accounts of World War I at home or abroad. We are left with only history books, newspaper clippings, ancestry records and secondhand stories to tell the tales and teach us the lessons learned in those two years.

But it is a mistake to gloss over this period in American history and a disservice to mankind to let April 6 go unnoticed. To help, the United States World War One Centennial Commission commemorates this year’s anniversary with a website,; and “American Experience” offers us the three-part, six-hour documentary “The Great War” on KET, running next Monday through Wednesday.