Before the Greatest Generation, there was the Forgotten Generation of World War I, the remaining members of which are depicted in this gloriously colorful swan song.
It’s stunning to think that the last veteran of the American Expeditionary Forces of World War I, Frank Buckles, died in 2011 at the age of 110, but more amazing perhaps is the fact that there were “dozens” of aged veterans still around by 2003, when New York journalist Rubin (Confederacy of Silence: A True Tale of the New Old South, 2002, etc.) took on the task of tracking them down and interviewing them. The French did a better job of recording and honoring them, mainly since they were truly grateful for the Americans’ stepping in and driving back the Germans after four years of mostly brutal stalemate, while back in the U.S., the veterans didn’t have a GI Bill or much recourse. From the numerous interviews Rubin conducted with these extraordinary people during the last 10 years, he conveys a vivid glimpse of an entire society gradually brought into the conflict, from the 1917 book, Arthur Guy Empey’s Over the Top, which first brought the experience of fighting in the trenches home to Americans, to the Tin Pan Alley hits that sold the war to the people, to the lost regionalisms spoken by the centenarians who shared their stories in a lucid, forthright manner. Most were farm boys and laborers who signed up in the initial excitement of spring 1917 (“I was just looking for—for a life,” one mused), admitting they had nothing against the Germans, especially considering most were sons of immigrants or immigrants themselves. Rubin’s subjects tell of meeting Gen. John Pershing, getting gassed, manning the machine guns, and being continually horrified and, above all, lucky to get out alive.
A wonderfully engaging study executed with a lot of heart.