In 2003 author Richard Rubin formulated a plan to interview all the living American veterans of the First World War. The remaining veterans were few and almost impossible to find. At the advanced ages of 101 to 113, most were living in the homes of relatives or in care facilities.
Rubin spent ten years gathering the stories that form his newest book, The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War. He used the veterans' firsthand accounts to tell a larger story, to give contemporary readers perspective on a conflict so vast that its moniker, the World War, was no exaggeration.
Oklahoma HUMANITIES Magazine Editor Carla Walker spoke with Rubin for a fascinating interview in our Fall 2014 issue, which you can read by clicking here. The following are additional questions and answers that space didn't allow us to print.
Carla Walker: In the Prologue of The Last of the Doughboys, you say that, to your knowledge, a complete history hasn't been written on the First World War because it's "too vast, and too strange, to be knowable in its entirety." Among the oddities I found surprising were that Germany published ads in American newspapers, warning that they might sink the Lusitania, and that (for all the propaganda in their homelands painting the other side as brute and enemy), Allied troops and German soldiers had a mutual respect of sorts. Are these the things to which you refer when you describe the war as "strange"?
Richard Rubin: Yes, but that's just the tip of the tip of the tip. There's so much about the war that's strange; some of the stories of fighting on the Eastern Front and in Africa are so surprising that it's almost impossible to even relate them. On the Western Front, I encountered countless tales of kindness between enemy soldiers (amid the daily inhumanity of war, of course). British troops swore they saw angels protecting them at the battle of Mons in 1914. American troops often told of capturing German soldiers who addressed them in perfect unaccented English and asked how their favorite baseball teams were doing; they'd worked in America for years before the war. German spies regularly dressed up as American colonels and infiltrated American regiments with ease, coming and going as they pleased. Armies on both sides regularly staged lavish funerals for downed enemy fliers. Douglas MacArthur was separated from his brigade during one battle and was captured by solders from another American division who mistook him for a German general. Soldiers on both sides declared a spontaneous Christmas truce in 1914, to the severe consternation of their commanders. I could go on.
CW: Though conscription (the nationwide draft) was instituted, many young men--as in contemporary America--enlisted as volunteers because service brought a steady paycheck. Of the vets you interviewed, was there a common drive for adventure, a sense of duty, or financial need among them?
RR: I wouldn't say so; there were as many reasons for serving as there were people I interviewed. Some, of course, were drafted, and not terribly excited about the prospect of going off to the trenches, but they went anyway and did their best. Some enlisted for patriotism, some for adventure, and some because they knew that at least they'd get fed in the Army. They were all very honest about their reasons. If you've made it to 107, I imagine you don't feel the need to try to bathe yourself in glory.
CW: Veteran Arthur Fiala noted that, in the beginning, American troop operations hinged not so much on munitions as on lumber--building infrastructure to support the front lines, from barracks and railroads to hospitals and power facilities. What other intricacies of the war surprised you?
RR: This is another subject I could talk about for days. I was surprised to learn how much discretion recruiters had in signing people up--that's why there were so many 16-year-olds in the service--and in steering people toward this branch or that, depending on the needs and quotas of that particular day. I was surprised to learn that a general could manage to ship his entire division--25,000 men plus horses and equipment--to France without orders. I was surprised to learn that when the U.S.first entered the war, most Americans believed their primary contribution would be naval, which turned out to be far from the case. I was surprised to learn that American divisions and regiments were organized geographically, just like in the Civil War. And I was surprised to learn exactly how chaotically, and often tragically, things played out on the last morning of the war, November 11, 1918.
CW: You've said that you were completely unprepared for what you found in France. You write, "It's as if the First World War has consumed all of the local memory," that when people there refer to "The War" they're talking about World War I. Would you elaborate on that?
RR: Quite simply, that war was the worst thing that ever happened to France. Every family there lost someone; many families lost almost everyone. Every village lost a good chunk of its male population; in some villages, by the end of the war, there were no men left at all. People still argue about this facet of the war or that--who's to blame for this defeat, who deserves the credit for that victory, if only this had been done or that not done, the war would have ended much sooner, etc., as if it all happened last week. In contrast, you hear almost nothing about the Second World War there. And I should add the French are still extremely cognizant, and grateful, to Americans for what we did in the First World War. They give us a lot more credit than we give ourselves.
CW: One of the things I most enjoyed in your book is your penchant for lists--one of which is on our Fall 2014 magazine cover. Where does that love of minutia come from?
RR: As a child I was fascinated with trivia, which was very popular at the time--the 1970's--and there were a lot of great books around then to slake that thirst. My parents took a dim view of that obsession, but I can tell you that, as a writer, it comes in very handy: Scarcely a week goes by when I don't evoke in my work some factoid that I first encountered as a child. It also helped me learn how to organize things, which is where the lists come in. To this day, the Book of Lists series is one of my favorite reads of all time. I really wish someone would write a new one.