I saw the gravestone recently and was struck by it. Of all the things that William J. Ira was during his life, he is meant to be remembered as a doughboy. Standing at attention with his weapon in his right hand and bayonet hanging off his pistol belt. Campaign hat and puttees, the perfect embodiment of soldiers of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in World War One. His parent (and town) were clearly proud of his service.
100 years ago this August, General Pershing and the first elements of AEF had already begun to arrive in France. They wouldn’t begin to see combat on the Western Front for several more months but the United States was committed to war.
In Washtenaw County, preparation for war was in full swing. As recounted in the History of Washtenaw County from “Historic Michigan” (1928)
“The people of Washtenaw, inspired with the patriotism of Americans
responding to the call to arms, availed themselves of every opportunity
to pay reverent tribute to the Stars and Stripes during that trying first
year. As each quota of Washtenaw men left the county the people
turned out to bid them God’s speed,’ and if, at times, there was an ab-
sence of cheering it was a feeling of respect and reverence that was man-
fested rather by a bared head than in an exhibition of lung power. The
people had awakened to the seriousness of thewar, had begun to realize
that the country was about to engage in a terrible struggle terrific in
its dimensions, demanding the sacrifice of the lives of many of the boys,
with its attendant suffering and misery, but still with that feeling deep
down in their hearts as expressed by one old soldier in addressing a meet-
ing of the citizens when he said to them: “I know that it is hard for
you to see your boys go away to war but I also know that there is not
a mother here who would not be ashamed if she thought her boy was
not prepared to do his duty.” How well the boys of those mothers
did their duty has been told. ”
I’m pretty sure the author never heard an “old soldier” say that and the prose is a bit jarring to our modern ears but Washtenaw County was in the war.
This blog is rapidly turning into one pretty much just about history but World War One is really important. When the “Great War” was over, the men and women of this generation were the ones who made many of the tangible infrastructure decisions that are still with us today. From road alignments, highway planning, industry creation and a thousand other small things. I hope to have time to explore many of those threads but now, during the hundredth anniversary of the War, I want to remember the war itself.