The following is a guest blog post by Rachel Telford, Archivist for the Veterans History Project.
A few days ago, the Veterans History Project launched “A World Overturned,” the third and final installment of our companion site to the Library of Congress exhibit, “Echoes of the Great War.” While part one explored the United States’ entry into World War I, and part two delved into the experiences of American servicemen overseas, part three examines the impact of the war on individuals who served.
By the time the Armistice was declared on November 11, 1918, World War I had wrought change across the globe, from the fall of empires, to individuals who were scarred both physically and mentally. While some joined the military seeking adventure, and others simply felt they were fulfilling their duty as citizens, all who returned from war were forever changed by their experiences.
Roland H. Neel, Sr., initially served as an artillery officer, training with French officers who did not speak English. After finding it difficult to receive his training via interpreters, a buddy suggested that they volunteer for the aviation corps. Neel asked, “Wait a minute, you know what flying is?” But ultimately, the dangers of this new technology did not deter him. The use of aircraft would forever change the nature of warfare, creating a whole new front on which to fight. While Neel experienced some of the risks of aerial combat first-hand, he managed to avoid injury. But his family was permanently affected by the war when his brother, Joseph, was killed in action during the Battle of St. Mihiel.
Hubert Wesselman served with the 89th Division in France and Germany, fighting in the Battle of St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. According to his daughter, the war affected him for the rest of his life. She notes that on occasion:
The realities of the horrors he experienced would surface and he would go off by himself and seemingly relive them.
Unfortunately, proper medical care for conditions such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder were still decades away, and Wesselman took his own life at the age of 61.
Ernest Muzzall enlisted in the Army in February 1918, and was fortunate to miss many of the horrors endured by the men who came before him. Arriving in Europe just weeks before the Armistice, he served with Army Veterinary Hospital #1, classifying and transporting horses that had been used by artillery units. After 14 months of service, he was eager to return to civilian life, but as he received his discharge and left Camp Lewis, he experienced what he later described as a “lost feeling.” He had returned the pack and helmet that he’d worn for so long that they felt like part of his body, and for the first time in more than a year, he was alone.
Some veterans happily returned from World War I to find a more hopeful, more peaceful world, while others struggled under the weight of painful memories, but the impact of war was felt by all those who served. To view all of the collections featured in the exhibit, visit //www.loc.gov/vets/stories/wwi-part3.html.