On Nov. 11, an event will be held at the State Capitol in Raleigh honoring veterans who served in combat and our military.
The date is significant for another reason: Nov. 11 marks the 100th anniversary of the signing of the World War I Armistice in 1918.
This event formally ended the fighting on land, sea and air between the allies and Germany. It was intended to be “the war to end all wars.”
According to the State Archives, over 60,000 N.C. men were drafted and nearly 2,400 died in WWI, including many as part of the British army. Their battlefields included the Second Battle of the Marne, Battle of Saint-Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive -- the last major campaign of the war. North Carolina soldiers were engaged in all major battles on the Western Front.
My grandfather, Oscar C. Rhoades, was 21 when he, like so many of the young men, went off to fight. He left behind his childhood sweetheart -- along with siblings who loved him and friends who wished him well and prayed for his safe return.
He had never crossed an ocean or visited a foreign country, but soon found himself on the battlefields of France, thousands of miles from his Wilkes County home where his ancestors had settled over a hundred years before.
As a soldier, he often transported munitions to the front in the large wagons, and when he returned for more supplies, the wagons were filled with the wounded and sometimes fallen comrades.
During one horrible day in battle, two of his best friends on his right and left were shot dead within minutes of each other. Years later he told me it was in those moments he realized his fate was not in his hands. If he came home, it would be God’s will.
For my grandfather, looking at that war through eyes of a rural farm boy was very hard on many levels. He spoke with great sadness of seeing the animals suffer as they played their part in military operations.
He talked about the conditions in the trenches, the noise and the chaos of war. These memories never left him, remembering the broken lives, shattered towns and villages, lost harvests and, in some cases, lost hope.
Today we understand much more about what seeing carnage firsthand does to people. Pictures and old film footage showing the WWI battlefields illuminate the massive damage to the landscape, but the personal damage to those in battle often remains hidden. The conditions in the trenches, the gas attacks that killed and ruined the health of countless people -- these give us a sense of the lingering memories those witnesses lived with long after the guns went silent.
The fighting ended and the soldiers started home. My grandfather sailed home from France in 1919 on the USS Missouri. Gone was the youthful innocence of men who had never seen war. They were forever changed. “Shell shock” became a phrase now burned in the American vocabulary. Those who did come home had a clear understanding of how fortunate they were to make it back.
My grandfather married his sweetheart, raised a family and became a valued member of his small rural community – Dehart in northern Wilkes.
He had a good life, but not without sadness as he lost two children and then his wife when she was just 39 years old. But, he lived to see his four surviving children become successful in life and have families of their own.
My grandfather was always proud rather than sorry that he served. And he never forgot the words of a special poem, well-known to many of his generation and beyond.
“We are the dead; short days ago
“We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
“Loved and were loved, and now we lie in Flanders fields.”
At 90, as his life drew toward the end, my grandfather would often say, “You know, I’ve been to England and France in the war and made it back.”
Sadly he would add, “But so many of the fellas never got to come home. They’re still over there.”
And then he would say, “I was lucky, lucky, lucky.”
Let us think of the troops from that great conflict and remember them – and the same for all who serve our country - and be mindful of their contributions and sacrifices yesterday and today.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Karen Hayes Rotterman lives in Raleigh and is the granddaughter of the late Oscar C. Rhoades, who served in WWI, and the daughter of the late Chall E. Hayes, who served in WWII. Both men were in the U.S. Army’s Wildcat Division, with Rhoades serving in Europe and Hayes in the South Pacific.