In May of 2005 The Economist chose as the subject for its obituary Albert Marshall, the last British cavalryman of the First World War, who had died on 16 May 2005 at the age of 108 (“The Last of the Mounted British Cavalry,” smarties, 3 June 2005). Mr. Marshall is only one of a series of such last survivors of the First World War. This Armistice Day both The New York Times and The Washington Post (Rubin, Richard, “Over There — and Gone Forever,” Kunkle, Fredrick, “World War I Veteran Reflects on Lessons,” 12 November 2007, respectively) ran stories about Frank W. Buckles, at age 106 the last remaining U.S. veteran of the Great War. From The New York Times:
But even more significant than the remarkable details of Mr. Buckles’s life is what he represents: Of the two million soldiers the United States sent to France in World War I, he is the only one left.
This Veterans Day marked the 89th anniversary of the armistice that ended that war. The holiday [was] first proclaimed as Armistice Day by President Woodrow Wilson in 1919 and renamed in 1954 to honor veterans of all wars … But there’s a good chance that this Veterans Day will prove to be the last with a living American World War I veteran. (Mr. Buckles is one of only three left; the other two were still in basic training in the United States when the war ended.) Ten died in the last year. The youngest of them was 105.
Four years ago, I attended a Veterans Day observance in Orleans, Mass. Near the head of the parade, a 106-year-old named J. Laurence Moffitt rode in a Japanese sedan, waving to the small crowd of onlookers and sporting the same helmet he had been wearing in the Argonne Forest at the moment the armistice took effect, 85 years earlier.
I didn’t know it then, but that was, in all likelihood, the last small-town American Veterans Day parade to feature a World War I veteran. The years since have seen the passing of one last after another — the last combat-wounded veteran, the last Marine, the last African-American, the last Yeomanette — until, now, we are down to the last of the last.
It’s hard for anyone, I imagine, to say for certain what it is that we will lose when Frank Buckles dies. It’s not that World War I will then become history; it’s been history for a long time now. But it will become a different kind of history, the kind we can’t quite touch anymore, the kind that will, from that point on, always be just beyond our grasp somehow. We can’t stop that from happening. But we should, at least, take notice of it.
If I may quibble a little bit, the First World War is not “history”: we live with its consequences every day. In fact, one might say that we still occupy its long shadow.
That aside, I concur that the notion of living memory and a direct lineage to events is significant, especially psychologically so. Plowing a field behind a team of animals, however primitive it may sound, is a part of our world owing to the presence of certain grey-hairs who will recount years of having performed such a labor. The Crimean War is something else entirely. It may as well be the Siege of Troy. The transition from living history to the history that is relegated to documents and artifacts and books and nothing else is dismaying. As Carl Sagan pointed out, we are all orphans abandoned on the doorstep of time. But we are not abandoned once. We are abandoned over and over again every time one of our own passes.