Dick Leckbee’s uncle Clarence Sellers served in the army in World War I. Leckbee said his uncle was hit with mustard gas and suffered a shoulder injury during the fighting in France.
Leckbee, former commander of the St. Charles VFW, said he used to visit his mother’s brother in Edina, Missouri, as a kid during summer vacations.
“It caused him nerve damage, and he had total disability the rest of his life,” Leckbee said of the mustard gas. “He had other physical and mental aftereffects from it.”
World War I began in the summer of 1914, 100 years ago. The U.S. declared war on Germany April 6, 1917, and veterans of that war are noted in a plaque on the Baker Community Center in St. Charles, in a photo at the Batavia Public Library and in photos and records at the Geneva History Museum and the St. Charles Heritage Center.
Leckbee said his uncle seldom talked about his service.
“He was in the thick of it in France. He used to tell me about running through hills and trying not to get his head blown off in France most of the time,” Leckbee said. “I remember him saying how peaceful it is around here. ‘Dickie, see the trees and hear the nice birds singing. We had none of that over there, trying to dodge bullets and trying to stay alive.’
“I understand from my family and my mother how messed up he got overseas,” Leckbee said. “He suffered, but he never made an issue of it. He thanked God to be able to come home.”
While Leckbee’s uncle survived a mustard gas attack, Harold Axel Colson did not, and died Nov. 10, 1918, according to a War Department honor roll of the dead, a document in the St. Charles Heritage Center collection.
A torn and yellowed undated telegram from the War Department tells of the heroics of one St. Charles soldier and death of another St. Charles soldier, both unnamed: “In a platoon on the edge of Bois du Fay in France, heard in the twilight, a whir of airplanes, and looking up, saw an American plane with three German planes in pursuit.
“The American plane climbed above the enemy plane and made a straight dive downward and the purr of the machine gun could be heard above the buzz of the motor. The fight was desperate.
“The American plane was seen to careen then come to Earth in a wooded spot. Breaking all army rules, the St. Charles lad rushed to take the flier from the flaming plane and saw the pilot was a cousin. He died two hours later in the hospital saying, ‘They never got me.’ ”
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Yet, while England and France already have begun to mark the 100th anniversary with various events and remembrances, many in the United States do not seem to have similar interest. According to a local history professor, that would not be unusual as most of the war was fought in Europe, and the U.S. entered late.
Elgin Community College history professor Tim Malone said by the time the United States was involved in World War I, the tide already had turned, he said.
And for Americans, World War II has more significance.
But geography and politics aside, Malone said the impact of World War I should not be underestimated.
“World War I is the most important event in recent history in historical terms,” Malone said. “It’s more important an event than World War II. Historians are always looking for events that changed everything. World War I changed everything.”
One way of gauging this war’s effect on the world is to see what it changed, he said.
“World War I was the beginning of the end of the English empire and the French empire. France was never the same. England was never the same,” Malone said.
“It destroyed the Austrian empire, the Czars of Russia – the Romanovs – the kings of Hohenzollern who ruled Prussia and became the emperors of Germany. The sultanate of the Ottoman empire that ruled Constantinople for 500 years was destroyed,” Malone said.
“World War I destroyed the old order. Empires that had existed for hundreds of years did not make it through World War I,” he said. “It was that kind of war.”
In the hundred years between the Napoleonic wars and World War I, technology changed dramatically and leaders did not understand the type of war they were starting, Malone said, using machine guns, airplanes and trench warfare.
“It was a kind of a monster that arose. And no one saw it coming, and it consumed them,” Malone said. “They bumbled into it, and it had a life of its own. They were not looking for what they got.”
As for the U.S. involvement, Malone said he agreed with author Walter Karp, whose analysis was that President Woodrow Wilson led an unwilling nation into an unnecessary war.
“That’s pretty much my view,” Malone said. “But it’s worth thinking about how it changed the world. It raised us as a world power. There was no doubt after World War I who was No. 1.”
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Waubonsee Community College assistant history professor Amy Powers said Europe’s rush to war also was precipitated by an arms race that followed a conflict between France and Germany.
“The last biggest war was the Franco-Prussian war that ended in 1871,” Powers said. “The European nations were anticipating another war. They were forming alliances and anticipating – but they had no idea it would be so devastating and deadly as it was.”
“They are nationalistic and very exciting. There is a romanticism of war, an anticipation and excitement,” Powers said. “We contrast those poems with other writings at the end of the war and see a huge shift in attitude. The discourse becomes very pessimistic.”
Information about World War I can be found at the following websites: