14 November 2014

Uncle Sam


by R.T. Lawton

Rainbow Division shoulder patch
Three days ago was November 11th, Veteran's Day, our national holiday to celebrate the end of World War I. The way the peace treaty was set up. at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, all the guns in Europe went silent. The War to End All Wars, which had started one hundred years ago from this year, was then over. More than 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians had perished. In those days, new technology for death and destruction, plus the stalemate of trench warfare had caused the increased casualty rate.

My Family

All this got me to thinking. When I was a kid, I remember times when my Uncle Sam Pritchard came to visit. He was always a quiet man, never said much, but was good to all his nieces and nephews and seemed to enjoy our company with fishing, camping and archery. Us kids though got reminders not to ask our uncle about the war he was in or even to mention that war to him at all. At our young age, we merely agreed and didn't think much about it. Although, I know my dad and Sam must have discussed the subject a few times because my dad would sometimes tell me stories about Sam and The Great War.

German soldiers on way to the front
As I was told, my Uncle Sam had been a mechanic in the Rainbow Division, an American army division which fought in France. At the front, their meals of cooked beans were loaded into large metal cans at the field kitchens and carried to the troops in the trenches on the backs of pack mules. Life at the front was short. Sam was sick when he came home after the war. Seems a slight whiff of Mustard Gas had burned his lungs during one of the German attacks, but he survived and made it back alive.

French reserves headed to Verdun
I always liked the old guy and had some good times with him. On a whim recently, I plugged his name into a Google search. Didn't really expect to find much, so I was surprised to locate a roster of the Rainbow Division for that time period. About two thirds of the way through the roster, I found his name under the 168th Regiment (3rd Iowa) Infantry: Samuel A. Pritchard, Mechanic, Van Meter, Iowa. All the other names had a rank behind the name, so evidently in those days Mechanic was a specialty rank. I had known Sam to be good with his hands, always making something out of wood or metal, inventing machines, tinkering and repairing stuff. It's easy to believe he was listed as a Mechanic.

British gas casualties
Unit History

The Rainbow Division (42nd Infantry Division) was activated in August 1917 and was made up of various regiments from 26 states and Washington, D.C. Their shoulder patch is a quarter arc of bands of red, yellow and blue on an army green border. Arriving in France in November 1917, the Division took part in four major operations: the Champagne-Marne, the Aisne-Marne, the Battle of Saint-Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. In 1919, the Division was deactivated until being placed back into service for WWII.

Russian troops awaiting German attack
Choosing Sides:

The main players in this 1900's world drama were:

     Central Powers ~ Germany, Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bosnia, Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria
     Allied Powers ~ America, British Empire, France and colonies, Belgium, Serbia, Russia, Italy

Aftermath

The aggressor was defeated and rightly so, but the aftermath of The War to End All Wars only set the stage for the next global conflict and some of the smaller conflicts which followed after that one. Treaties had been written by the politicians to punish the losing countries who then resented their poor economic conditions and stored away old grudges to be brought out later. Territories were distributed as the winners saw fit which caused future unrest among peoples and governments. The desire by various countries for valuable resources decided where the control for some lands went. The fire was being lit for World War II, it merely smoldered under the surface for a time. Tribes and cultures in Africa and the Middle East were set on collision courses still being reaped in today's world.

Canadian tanks & troops
Austrians executing Serbs, 1917
Politicians wrote the various treaties for their own purposes both before the war to choose sides and after the war to set the terms of surrender, but it was the soldiers who fought the war and suffered in the process. My Uncle Sam served in our army from a sense of patriotic duty to his country, as many soldiers do, however I seriously doubt that many, if any, of those politicians involved in the decisions before and after ever served at the front during that time of death, destruction and madness.

4 comments:

janice law said...

A nice tribute to your uncle. And you're right, the end of the war did little more than set the scene for the next.

Fran Rizer said...

Most people who qualify for "senior citizen" discounts, remember someone, family or friend, who served in WWI and/or WWII. Your Uncle Sam Pritchard reminds me of someone I knew. Thanks for bringing him back to mind.

Anonymous said...

I used to think my dad had had big adventures at the very end of WWII. As I grew up, I began to realize that none of the other military men who'd served in WWII cared to talk about it or "tell war stories." My ex-husband's father, for example, was one of the first few men over the Remagen Bridge in the Battle of the Bulge. He had a painting hanging in the hallway (hallway, notice) of his house that depicted this. But he would never talk about it, even when asked. The closest he came was when I said, "You must been pretty brave to run across a bridge like that into the enemy." His not-happy response was, "Hell, it wasn't the Germans we were afraid of. PATTON was BEHIND us." Nothing more. Later I knew men who fought in Viet Nam -- same thing. Finally, as a much older adult, I realized my father's "war adventure stories" were compensation for the fact that he had not really participated in any real combat. So he had to do something about it, ego-wise. It really made me think about the different kinds of stories people tell, and why they tell -- or don't tell -- them.

Jeff Baker said...

Nice to hear!