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(10,131 posts)
Sat Nov 11, 2023, 04:57 PM Nov 2023

My Great Uncle was a WW1 veteran

Last edited Sun Nov 12, 2023, 01:31 AM - Edit history (2)

When he was eight, his father died unexpectedly.
He dropped out of school to work two jobs to support his mother, my grandfather who was six years old and his younger sister. His siblings stayed in school while he worked.
He never stopped working as his mother and siblings needed his support.
Eventually, he got into law enforcement when he got older.
He lied about his age and joined the army when WW1 came along.

He got shot in the head. They put a plate in and sent him back out to fight.
He got promoted and fought hard. War is a terrible thing. That war was as bad as any.
When the war was over, he came home. He had many ‘souvenirs’ from German soldiers he had captured (weapons, helmets, swords/sabres, etc.)
He just dropped them at my grandfather's house and left.

Years later, my brother and I were playing in the basement of my grandfather's house when we came across his war souvenirs. We asked about them. We couldn't believe we had kind of a war hero in the family we'd never heard about. We were very young. I was about 7 years old. Hollywood was still sort of glorifying WW2 in the movies ..

I kept at my father. "What happened to him?" "Why don't we see him?" "Where is he?" "The family should be seeing him, shouldn't they?"
He'd dropped his belongings and went out west to live in the woods more than 40 years before.
Once a year, he would write his brother.
I told my father “You have to go get him" I would not let it go. My 9-year-old brother backed me.
I didn't understand why he would not be with us or see us.
We basically shamed my father into doing something about it.
My Dad was 2 years old when he returned from the war. He'd never really met him either.

My father relented, tracked him down and sent him thousands of dollars to entice him to visit and pay his traveling expenses. In the fall of 1963, he came to visit for a week.

To this day, I have never met anyone like him. I had an instant, incredible connection with him. It was like we knew what each other was thinking without speaking. I was glued to him for that week. But we didn't say much. It was kinetic. Extraordinary serenity, comfort and safety with another person. I can't fully explain it. Never experienced anything like it since. He seemed to feel something too.

Just as the plates were being taken away after our last dinner, my dad requested of my great uncle "Tell the boys about the war ..." My great uncle was across from me. He froze. Tears welled up. As I darted around the table, my father, with a more insistent tone, demanded again. I said in a panic "He already answered!" Everyone look at me like I was nuts. He had said nothing. I said it again more emphatically as I stood protectively beside him. His eyes and expression answered the question. Nothing more needed to be said. In the silence of his response, I could sense the terror & feel the horror. Like I could hear the screams inside of his mind.

He left the next morning to go back to his home alone in the wilderness.

My mother lost her mother to cancer when she was eight. At age fifteen, she nursed my grandfather as he wheezed to death from the gassings in the WW1 trenches. We were not allowed to speak of the wars around her. It could trigger tremendous suffering she never got over.

I asked to go see my great uncle. I could spend the summer in the wilderness with him. He had built a cabin in the woods. My parents wouldn't let me. A few years later, the police informed us he'd passed away. They delivered a box of his belongings. That was it.

Except it wasn't it for me. I was troubled. This man stopped his childhood at age eight and devoted his life to taking care of his mother and siblings. He served in law enforcement and defended his country. How could such a person wind up like he did? My brother and I started researching. We tracked down people in the town near where he lived (we fixed up his grave). We went through the war records, etc. We found articles that had mentioned him. We traced where he'd been. We found that he had relieved my mother's father in a trench in France - they marched past each other - a few years before my mother was born.

But it still didn't make sense. Something had happened. It seemed to have happened in the war. Trench warfare is horrific but there seemed to be something else or more. Why did he turn in his stripes? I kept digging. Finally, an officer in the army agreed to let me look at records that were not in the public and said he'd try to help me figure out what happened. In 2016, we met at a facility where these records were.

From a review of the records, the officer felt that my great uncle had become upset at the waste of young soldiers by their commanding officers’ careless command. He spoke out. They took exception and made an example of him. They tied him to a wagon wheel and rolled him out to around the trenches barely in range of the Germans. The Germans could practice target shooting at him. They left him there for two weeks. Then, he turned in his stripes.

They broke him.
It happened over 100 years ago and I am crying as I type that.
It is still so hard to accept.

Turns out the army had motivation for seeing me. They had a problem with soldiers coming back from Iraq & Afghanistan who were killing themselves. They wanted to try to understand why my great uncle, who obviously had severe PTSD, had not killed himself. And if they got that understanding, maybe it could help them help others. I had an instant answer. "Look at his army pay. It was going home to his mother and sister. He'd looked after them since he was eight years old. If he killed himself, how would they survive? So, he toughed it out in the woods making a few bucks panning for gold, trapping, dog sledding, lumberjacking, etc. and supporting them like he'd done all his life. It's pretty simple. That was the essence of my great uncle => taking care of his family was his top priority."

Hardly anyone knows he existed.
If it wasn't for him, there is a good chance my family and I would not exist.
There are no monuments or medals for him. Just a flat grave marker covered by leaves in the woods in the middle of nowhere.
I still appreciate the week I got with him. I hope it gave him some relief from the immense pain he was in.
I will never forget him.

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(14,169 posts)
2. My 1st cousin
Sat Nov 11, 2023, 05:05 PM
Nov 2023

went MIA in France October 17, 1918. He was only 25, and an only son. He was in my grandmother's generation. I would loved to have met him. Less than 1 month later the war was over. Such a shame.


(22,327 posts)
3. Oh my goodness, Jarqui!
Sat Nov 11, 2023, 05:10 PM
Nov 2023

Thank you for sharing your Uncle's story with us.

His ordeal in the war is horrific. I can't believe they would do that to a fellow soldier. No wonder he had PTSD--most people would not have survived at all.

I am glad you were able to spend some time with him, and a great connection.


(2,303 posts)
4. Humble is the hero. He/she does what's best with
Sat Nov 11, 2023, 05:14 PM
Nov 2023

what they can. Sense he rubbed off on you.
Thanks for the telling.

Silent Type

(3,143 posts)
5. Great post. My granddad was a young farmer sent to drive trucks in Europe WWI.
Sat Nov 11, 2023, 05:30 PM
Nov 2023

He didn’t tell many stories, wish I had asked more.



(17,757 posts)
6. I had a great Uncle who served with the Rainbow Division at Croix Rouge Farm.
Sat Nov 11, 2023, 05:52 PM
Nov 2023

He is never made it home. James Monroe Suggs, we still speak your name.


(153,468 posts)
7. wonderful story
Sat Nov 11, 2023, 06:05 PM
Nov 2023

My English grandfather lied about his age to get into WWI too - but they quickly determined he was just a boy, didn't kick him out but no combat for him - later, however, he was one of the last soldiers picked up from the beaches of Dunkirk and it always astounded me how easy-going he was, very quiet, stable man.

I would like to add, however, that simply being motivated to support your family doesn't necessarily mean you will avoid PTSD - it's likely that your grandfather, like mine, for whatever reason simply escaped that demon.


(10,131 posts)
10. I don't think my great uncle escaped PTSD
Sat Nov 11, 2023, 07:02 PM
Nov 2023

I think it haunted him for the rest of his life.
In his eyes. I think he felt that he was mentally unfit to be among society.
So he went off to the woods.
There were a few other veterans that did the same thing and lived alone in that area.

There was a stigma associated with it back then that you were less of a man if you got shell shock (as it was sometimes referred to back then) or PTSD as we know it today. It was a character flaw in the eyes of many back then. You weren't a courageous man - you were a chicken and that's why you were messed up.

The only thing he 'escaped' was suicide, choosing to live with his suffering so he could continue to provide for his mother and sister (who had some issues herself).


(91,232 posts)
9. WWI was the first mechanized/industrialized war, &was notable for the sheer wastage of young men
Sat Nov 11, 2023, 06:48 PM
Nov 2023

The injuries were different from anything before — gas, for one, terrible facial injuries, and shell-shock (that we now call PTSD) for another. The story of your great-uncle made me cry.

Countless movies (and books and poems) from All Quiet on the Western Front onward celebrate and mourn men in the war. Because women’s stories are untold or, if told, forgotten, I’ve been collecting the stories of the women who went to that war as nurses, ambulance drivers, drivers for officers, and whatever else they were allowed to do. They died or if survivors were maimed, just as the men were, but as Pat Beauchamp found out, the hospitals and rehab facilities were all for the great numbers of men and they didn’t know what to do with a lone woman, so she had to fight hard to get her due.

I find these books kind of randomly over at Project Gutenberg (gutenberg.org) by checking their new acquisitions. The first one I found was Fanny goes to War, by Pat Beauchamp, a British girl who joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry or F.A.N.Y. She lost one leg and almost lost the other. After that first book, I kept my eye out for others.

Britain suffered hideously, losing nearly a generation of young men, which accounted for the number of lifelong spinsters (ever so kindly referred to as “superfluous women” ) in the decades following the Great War. The military sent brothers together, school chums were encouraged to join together, whole villages of young men sent in the same unit for the sake of comradeship — all lost, often at one blow. Punishment for anything considered cowardice or insubordination was absolutely savage — as apparently was the case for US soldiers as well.

I admire that you went searching for your uncle, both as a child and as an adult. Thank you for sharing his story here, with us. I hope he found his peace in the woods, in Nature. I hope he is at peace now.


(33,621 posts)
12. My grandfather also got that "plate in his head." He was murdered in a bar fight years before I was born.
Sat Nov 11, 2023, 07:26 PM
Nov 2023

He was a terrible alcoholic and used to disappear for years at a time, come home briefly, get my grandmother pregnant (which is how I came to exist), beat up members of the family and then leave again.

He was in the British Black Watch; he joined in 1914, although he lived in Brooklyn.

The last time my father saw his father, he threw him down the stairs and told him never to set foot in the house again. He was trying to burn my grandmother's face with a hot iron.

The next time my father saw his father it was to identify his body when they pulled it from the East River.

The British Army did give him a magnificent funeral, and imported soil from Scotland to put in the grave in Brooklyn. It was the only time my father felt positive about his father.

All I ever heard of my grandfather was what a terrible person he was. I asked my aunt, a generally elegant woman, to tell me about him when she was 88 years old. We were in a restaurant and she started cursing like a sailor. My wife and I wanted to crawl under the table.

I never thought much about how he came to be who he was. My grandmother, the only person who ever loved him, used to say, "He was a nice man until he got that silver plate in his head."

A while back I saw the movie "1914" and finally I had some sympathy for what he'd become. (The movie, as rough as it was, probably ended up be sanitized.)

It was, after all a terrible war.


(7,419 posts)
13. My grandfather was a WWI veteran.
Sat Nov 11, 2023, 07:34 PM
Nov 2023

Five years in the trenches manning a machine gun — for Germany. He surrendered to American troops at the end, learning to speak English while washing pans alongside the American cooks.

He emigrated to Mexico when the war ended, leaving behind generations of family in Bochum. He brought his wife and daughters to Texas, raising two additional sons in San Antonio. I met him when I was six — my parents dropped me off at his workshop. He allowed me to play with his carpentry tools for an afternoon.

He was a kind and thoughtful man, devoted to his wife and children. He never returned to Germany, hated Hitler, died in his late eighties.

I did extensive research and wrote my first 800 page novel about him. His sons said he hated machine guns, and war.


(51,525 posts)
14. My great uncle was killed in WWI, just days before
Sat Nov 11, 2023, 07:44 PM
Nov 2023

the war ended. Some kind guy on DU looked up his military records for me a couple of years ago. I never met him nor my uncles who died in WWII.


(20,787 posts)
15. What an important story. Thank you for sharing it.
Sat Nov 11, 2023, 07:56 PM
Nov 2023

Every generation's experience of war and "war-sickness" is slightly different.

I use the term "war-sickness" advisedly - it has gone by so many aliases, and there are so many proximate contributing factors that change from generation to generation.

We tend to associate war-sickness with the development of ever more frightful weapons - artillery, ironclad ships, tanks, gas, submarines, etc. But if you look back to the writings of Homer and Shakespeare it is clear that even in the era of sword against sword, there were horrors in war that left long-term effects.

One aspect of war-sickness that I think has not been adequately researched is the contribution of the social and economic milieu to which war-sick individuals returned. Your observation about your great-uncle's sense of responsibility for his mother and siblings is a case in point. I don't think that was an uncommon artifact of its era.

People who come from families, neighborhoods, communities where there is a lot of structure around roles and expectations tend to make those roles and expectations part of their identity. And as the world has grown more complex and diverse, communities are increasingly influenced by other communities, family structures are changing, our understanding of roles and human development evolves. Fewer and fewer people experience a specific community or even the same family structure throughout their childhood and early maturity.

I imagine this is having an effect on the experience of war-sickness, but I'm sure it is very complex. Not something easily encapsulated in a few phrases. Nevertheless, it does not look as though we will be abandoning the stupidity of war any time soon. Perhaps we need to pay more attention to this aspect of it.



(10,131 posts)
16. Final thoughts
Mon Nov 13, 2023, 05:29 AM
Nov 2023

I thought if I wrote about this - got it off my chest, it might be cathartic.
It just stirred it all up. Like any loss, I just have to accept living with it.

When you consider those who have lost a sibling, a parent or a child, what I experienced seems like almost nothing compared to their loss. I think the Vietnam Memorial remains the saddest place I have ever visited. I hope my post didn't bother those who suffered a greater loss.


(54,609 posts)
17. One of my grandfathers fought in World War I as well
Mon Nov 13, 2023, 06:00 AM
Nov 2023

His mom, whom I knew, as she lived to be 99, was a constant worry wart, so he wrote her letters from the front about what a wonderful, nice place France was. He told us it was a living hell, and otherwise said nothing about the war.

He returned home, survived the Depression by working menial jobs for nickels and dimes. His greatest asset was his incredible wit, which he never lost. In the 1960s, he remarked that he would turn LBJ’s “War on Poverty” into a War on Puberty to stem the Copulation Explosion. When he was 99, he sent out Christmas cards with a current photo of himself and the caption “Compliments of the Seasoned.” It’s no wonder that his wit saved him, and he was eventually picked up by an advertising agency. After losing his wife, at age 80, he took up painting to keep himself occupied. One of his first, my favorite, was his impression of a board meeting from his days with the advertising agency. It was called "The Blockheads." I was honored that he made sure that his will stated that it was for me:

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