The Last of the Doughboys by Richard Rubin

I read this book for my own personal pleasure and was not required to write a review. Therefore, all comments and opinions are entirely my own.

About the Book + Review:

Beginning in 2003 until 2013, Richard Rubin set out to do something no one else will ever be able to do again. He interviewed the last surviving American veterans of World War 1. These men and women ranged from ages 103 to 113 by the time he found them, all scattered throughout the nation. In 2011, the very last World War 1 veteran, not just of the United States, but of the world, passed away at the age of 110. This man, Frank Woodruff Buckles, was just sixteen when he enlisted into the Army. Once Rubin had interviewed as many of these veterans as he could find, he started to write a book about them. He titled this book The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War. At first he expected these veterans to be, essentially, like everyone else, only older. He quickly discovered that he was wrong. Not only were these men and women different because of what they went through, they were different because they grew up in a different time. And yet, there’s nothing especially extraordinary about them. As different as they are, they are human just like us. Nevertheless, these individuals have been largely forgotten, neglected and ignored throughout their lives. Ultimately, the stories of these ordinary men and women who served during World War 1 demonstrate that they did extraordinary things in a strange time in history. Therefore, they have earned the right to be heard, remembered and so much more.

Richard Rubin had a big project on his hands. When he began to compile these interviews into one comprehensive book, he decided to also include whole chapters on several different topics concerning World War 1 in order to give his readers a broader perspective of the period. Some examples include a chapter on songs composed during the war, a chapter on the experience of immigrants and African-Americans serving in the war and even another on soldiers’ biographies written either during the war or within a decade after it ended. This style helped break up the long line of interviews while also giving Rubin a chance to share all he had learned from the research he had made. Almost all of this research was inspired by the stories the veterans told him. Several times a veteran would remember part of something he had participated in while serving, but not know the whole context behind it. In these situations, after the interview, Rubin would painstakingly research as much as he could to find out what, or where, or how what the veteran had tried to describe to him had happened. In the process, he often found out about obscure pieces of history that no one else seemed to know about, or at least talk about. Besides detailing the veterans’ interviews, Rubin also discussed his thoughts (and research) on what he called the Forgotten Generation that these men and women were a part of. This helps readers feel that these men and women he interviewed were real—as if we have met them, too. At the end, he always asked the veterans what life was like for each of them post-war and in the process, found out how they perceived the war eighty-five years after it had ended.

Rubin interviewed veterans of all backgrounds: from the East Coast to the West Coast, from Southern farmer to Northern immigrant, from Army to Navy to Marines, from white to black, from man to woman. They all had different stories to tell. However, they almost all had one thing in common: why they had enlisted in the first place. This was clearly demonstrated in Frank Buckles’ simple response to Rubin’s question of why he wanted to go to France:

“Oh, well … I wanted action, of course.”

However, not all who volunteered to serve participated in combat. Some did not even make it to France. One of the amazing things about World War 1 was that the action that happened in France, the action we think of as moving the war forward (or backward), could not have happened without millions of soldiers doing hard work behind the scenes. For example, the Allied Navy blockade of Germany throughout the course of the war prevented the Germans from receiving food, ammunition, supplies and a great number of the valuable things they needed to survive as a country. This, in turn, weakened the German army, which gave the Allies on the war front a chance to start pushing them back in France. Another example is the 20th Engineers who cut down trees for much needed lumber before sending it off to the front. Veteran Arthur Fiala was one of them. After describing his experience behind the front lines to Rubin, he suddenly cried out,

“Listen! The people behind the battle were just as important as the people in the battle! … I don’t know why the hell they put me in with the engineers! I didn’t ask them to do it! I wanted to be in the battle, but they put me in with engineering.”

Fiala mistakenly believed that his service was not as important or valuable as those who had served in combat. Just because he did not see any “action” did not mean he and the 20th Engineers did not contribute to the war effort. Furthermore, there were some people, as mentioned above, who had been drafted in late 1918 and were in the midst of training when the Armistice was signed. One Harold Gardner had even so far as boarded a train—his ultimate destination being France—when they were told they would not have to go after all. They never made it across the Atlantic Ocean. Rubin feels, however, that “something about [World War 1] carved in them a furrow so deep that for the remaining eight or so decades of their lives, they needed, now and again, to run a finger or memory through that groove, to feel it again for a few minutes, an hour, two hours.” This was something Rubin gave them the chance to do. He was also given the chance to validate their experiences and their title as World War 1 veteran. They had more claim to it than any of us had.

Of the two million Americans who served in the Great War overseas, around 300,000 of them were African American. While African Americans in the United States were still longing for equal rights, in France much of the existing prejudice evaporated. It was not perfect, but in many ways, African Americans were treated with more respect overseas than they were at home. Rubin noted that “it is strange to think of the Army, an institution that is by definition hierarchical and authoritarian, as being more progressive, more sensitive, more caring than the society it protects; and yet, that’s exactly how things were in America during the First World War.” Rubin was able to interview two African American veterans of World War 1 as well as discuss race relations with other white veterans. While colored troops were, tragically, often forced to do the “dirty work” that the other troops did not want to do, there was a surprising level of admiration between the black and white soldiers. The war gave many a chance to experience a life they may never have even glimpsed if they had just stayed at home where they were born. In their cases, a life where prejudice no longer fits.

As the subtitle suggests, Rubin views these World War 1 veterans as belonging to what he calls the Forgotten Generation. What exactly does he mean when he uses that phrase? In one particular chapter in the book, Rubin gives a glimpse into the world these veterans grew up in. Within their short life before the Great War began (as all the veterans he interviewed were between the ages of fifteen and twenty-two when they enlisted), they had experienced the Panic of 1907, infant mortality was still very high, Jim Crow laws were still in effect, and many teenagers dropped out of high school, and never even considered college, in order to work to help provide for their families. They were the parents of what we call the Greatest Generation—the brave men and women who survived World War II. But were their parents any less great? Rubin argues that “[t]he parents of the Greatests—let’s call them the “Forgotten Generation”, since they are—grew up with all of the hardships I just listed, then went off to get the scalp of Mr. Kaiser Man, fighting in muddy, filthy trenches, battling tedium and lice as they ducked bullets, shells, and poison gas.” The Forgotten Generation deserves just as much respect as the Greatest, not because they are greater than the Greatest, but because they also endured much and made it on the other side of great suffering. Because of their experiences, their perspective on the world is different and unique compared to generations before and after them. During an interview with veteran J. Laurence Moffit, Rubin asked him what his secret to longevity was and whether or not it was difficult adjusting to life after the war. Moffit replied simply,

“I take things as they are, and I don’t let problems bother me. I never have problems … Nothing has ever been hard for me. I just live.”

While it is hard to believe that Moffit never experienced any problems in his life, he was obviously slow to complain about them. The key words “I just live” show a sense of dignity, perseverance and character in this man who had seen more in a few years than we will hopefully ever have to see in a lifetime.

After the war ended on November 11th, 1918, these veterans eventually returned home throughout the year 1919. Many were able to return to their previous jobs, relationships and pursuits they had been in the midst of before they left. Many others were less fortunate. While the veterans were received well in 1919, often greeted with parades and ceremonies, it did not take long before Americans tried to put them—and the war they were associated with—behind them. Many veterans did not receive their promised bonuses, many were turned away from potential jobs, many more were suffering mentally from shell shock or physically from wounds that never fully healed. Life was not easy for them. After the Roaring Twenties passed them by, they were soon engulfed in the Great Depression, followed closely by World War II. There was no peace for them. Yet, as the world moved forward, many of these veterans carried with them throughout their lives burdens of the past. While most of the veterans Rubin interviewed were stoic, one in particular, George Briant, was very transparent with his emotions. Toward the end of the interview, Rubin asked him about his experience of the last night of the war. Briant replied that the Germans and the Allies knew the end was near, so they launched all the shells they had left on the other side, for one final push. The next morning, Briant went out to observe the carnage. He could not hold back tears as he told Rubin:

“It was a sad affair, when I went along there and saw these men laying there, dying—six, seven, eight at that time. And I—I cried for their parents.” … He turned away, narrowed his eyes and tensed his lips—and sobbed. “The last day of the war!” he gasped. “They sacrificed their life!” … “On the edge of the woods, figuring they were safe—and they sacrificed their lives without knowing it…I had nothing to do.”

Briant had been carrying this burden for eighty-five years and would take it with him to his grave. Some burdens—some memories—never leave you.

The veterans of World War 1 experienced a world no one ever had before—or since. During one of his interviews with Frank Buckles, Rubin asked him if he felt the world was smaller now than it was before. He was shocked when Buckles said that it felt smaller in the past compared to now, not the usual answer. Rubin admitted: “It took me years, and many more conversations with World War 1 veterans … to begin to understand what [Buckles] meant by that, and more years still to understand that that’s the greatest legacy of the Great War. It made the world a much larger place for everyone involved … They left the world they knew … for far-off places they’d never heard of, much less imagined, and there beheld things that even the people who’d always lived in them had never seen. They set off for a world war, and came back with a world. A much larger world. And left it to us.” So often people in the modern age believe the world is better, smaller, larger—however they would word it—because of advances in technology and travel. While this is in one sense true, in many ways, the world becomes smaller to you once you have traveled and seen the world for yourself. Oftentimes in doing so, preconceived ideas and prejudices fade away and you begin to understand the truth of reality. Our reality.

Richard Rubin accomplished many things in writing The Last of the Doughboys. He not only interviewed the last couple dozen surviving World War 1 veterans in America; he not only brought to light aspects of the war that few people know about or understand in an engaging way; he not only took the time and dedication such a project needed to be done properly; ultimately, he convicted his readers, me included, that we cannot allow these brave men and women to be forgotten. They were once—they must not be any longer. Rubin said of his book that “[m]ost of all, it is about how much of [World War 1] that we can still find, and see, and hear, and touch, if we just open our eyes and understand where, and how, to look. Because it really is everywhere—even now that the last of the doughboys have left us.” In 2017, the United States commemorated 100 years since they had entered the Great War. Beginning the following year, Washington D.C. put together plans for a World War 1 memorial, as every war that the United States has ever participated in has a memorial in D.C. except the Great War. In 2020, they began building. Soon, there will be a constant reminder of the Forgotten Generation in Washington D.C. itself. Then, perhaps, the war’s veterans and everyone else who lived during that terrible time, will come to be known as the Remembered Generation. As Robert Laurence Binyon wrote so eloquently in his poem “For the Fallen”, “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.” I certainly hope so.

Conclusion:

I give The Last of the Doughboys 5 out of 5 stars. Richard Rubin did a fantastic job weaving in his historical research with the dozens of interviews he’d conducted. His writing style was engaging, and even though it’s not a novel, the pacing was excellently done, seeming to move toward a climax and conclusion, and it did so effortlessly. Due to thematic material, I suggest this book for those who are 16 and up.

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