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Forgotten sacrifice: Historians aim to keep memory of World War I alive

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

The United States entered World War I more than a century ago on April 2, 1917.

Hundreds of thousands of young American men, including thousands of New Mexicans, were sent “over there” – mostly to France – to fight on the battlefields and in the trenches.

The U.S. had vowed to stay neutral in the conflict that had raged on in Europe since 1914, but the German sinking of a British ship carrying American civilians eventually led to a declaration of war.

The last American “doughboy,” as soldiers in the conflict were known, died in 2011.

As even the children of the war’s veterans are reaching extreme old age, WWI is quickly fading from memory.

“World War I remains America’s forgotten war, even though more Americans gave their lives during that war than during Korea and Vietnam combined, and even though it profoundly shaped the rest of ‘the American century,’ ” reads an introduction on the home page of the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission, created by Congress in 2013 and tasked with educating today’s Americans about the war.

The First World War is generally, it seems, eclipsed by the second, which resulted in four times as many American casualties and is fresher in Americans’ minds.

New Mexicans are especially connected to World War II’s Battle of Bataan and the subsequent death march, which claimed the lives of as many as 650 Americans.

Years before that, though, between 14,000 and 16,000 New Mexicans were in uniform and more than 500 died in the “Great War.”

New Mexico was one of the two youngest states at the time, having entered statehood in 1912.

“New Mexico felt this was a good chance to prove their patriotism,” said historian and author Daniel Cillis. “No one was ready for the mechanized murder that took place.”

New Mexicans were proud of the fact that more than one-third of the state’s men in uniform had volunteered for service – fifth in the nation, per capita – according to David Holtby, also an author and historian.

Cillis and Holtby have spent countless hours researching and writing books dedicated to New Mexico and World War I in an effort to once again shed light on the sacrifices made by the state’s residents.

Cillis’ “World War I New Mexico” came out earlier this year, and Holtby’s “Lest We Forget: World War I and New Mexico, 1916-1941” is forthcoming.

Prewar experience

New Mexico’s unexpected role in preparing the nation for war began with Pancho Villa’s raid of Columbus in 1916, and the subsequent expedition to capture Villa in Mexico provided the U.S. military much-needed experience.

“The U.S. Army had really not done any massive large-scale troop maneuvers and logistical exercises prior to World War I,” said Capt. Gabriel Peterman, New Mexico National Guard historian. “It was down on the border where they learned how to move troops and more importantly how to move and supply an army in the field using motor vehicle transportation.”

Though still somewhat unprepared to face the professional German army, the experience on the border helped prime the U.S. military for the war.

Roswell’s Battery A Field Artillery, which deployed at the border during the Villa expedition, would become acquainted with Gen. John Pershing, who led the expedition.

Pershing would go on to lead American forces on Europe’s Western Front during the war.

Pershing was so impressed with the Roswell unit’s skill that he requested its deployment to Europe, led by Swiss immigrant Lt. Col. Charles de Bremond.

“It was said that Battery A was the best artillery battery in the entire United States Army,” Peterman said. “In fact, they fired more artillery rounds than any other U.S. Army unit during the war and took out several key bridges during the Battle of Chateau-Thierry.”

While de Bremond would survive to return to New Mexico, he died of respiratory complications from poison gas in 1919.

It was also a New Mexican who led the first American night reconnaissance mission, which would become commonplace throughout the war.

Capt. Joseph Quesenberry of Las Cruces arrived in Europe in June 1917.

In March 1918, he led a group of soldiers to pinpoint enemy positions and, if possible, capture German soldiers and documents, Holtby said.

“That shows a very early, significant and completely forgotten contribution (of a New Mexican soldier),” Holtby said.

Quesenberry would be killed at the front during the battle of Cantigny, the first major American offensive of the war.

Then there’s the story of 2nd Lt. Harry Rogers of Lakewood.

Rogers led Company B, one of the companies of the “Lost Battalion,” around 450 men who were surrounded and isolated by German forces in France’s Argonne Forest in October 1918.

For five days, the men were attacked with machine guns, artillery – sometimes from friendly forces by mistake – flame throwers and mortars, and by snipers.

Just 194 of the men lived through the onslaught; Rogers himself was killed by a sniper just before the survivors were rescued by Allied forces.

Rogers received the Distinguished Service Cross posthumously for his leadership in the ordeal. It is the second-highest military award for extreme gallantry, ranking below only the Medal of Honor.

“The leadership of officers such as Lt. Rogers was singularly exceptional,” Holtby said.

Traumas of war

Many returning World War I veterans suffered lifelong effects from poison gas and the terrible conditions of the war, both physically and mentally.

“You were fighting in a trench that was 10 feet deep, you’d have mud up to your knees,” Peterman said. “Depending on what sector of the front you were at, you could have a large number of corpses in no man’s land. The soldiers talk about rats the size of cats or small dogs that are eating the remains of people. They talk about artillery shells coming in and blowing rotten corpses in the air.”

It was enough to traumatize anyone, and many returning doughboys suffered from “shell shock,” as post-traumatic stress disorder was then known.

Though an acknowledged condition, it was little understood.

“There was very much a feeling that once you got home, you sort of put it behind you and moved on,” Peterman said.

New Mexico distributed questionnaires in 1919 to returning veterans that are now housed at the New Mexico State Records Center in Santa Fe.

The questionnaires asked veterans to share their wartime experiences.

While many detail in depth the events that led up to arriving in Europe to fight, the summary of their battle experience is often oddly truncated.

“Excuse me but I can’t tell you anymore of my experiences … may do it at a future date,” wrote William Adair of Swastika, now a ghost town in New Mexico. “Them times are to (sic) fresh in my memory yet.”

Reminders of the past

A century later, the exploits of the Americans who fought in World War I are all but forgotten.

Armistice Day, which celebrated the end of hostilities on the Western Front, is now known as Veterans Day.

 The Nov. 12, 1918, front page of the Albuquerque Morning Journal detailed the armistice that had gone in effect the previous day

The Nov. 12, 1918, front page of the Albuquerque Morning Journal detailed the armistice that had gone in effect the previous day. (Journal Archive)

“It has faded from human memory,” Cillis said.

Like Cillis and Holtby, the New Mexico National Guard Museum is seeking to remind New Mexicans of the accomplishments and sacrifices of those who fought in the Great War.

Peterman and the museum, at 1050 Old Pecos Trail in Santa Fe, are preparing a temporary exhibit to be unveiled in the spring.

It will feature the story of Battery A, a full-size submarine conning tower and a re-creation of the military cemetery in France where the remains of nearly 100 New Mexicans killed in the war were buried.

“It’s not fair we sort of ignored our World War I veterans for so long,” Peterman said. “This is definitely a good time to talk about their sacrifices.”

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