This year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of fighting in World War I. About 130,000 Tennesseans went to fight in World War I, dubbed The Great War.” More than 3,400 lost their lives.
“The Great War propelled Tennessee into the 20th century,” said Dr. Michael Birdwell of the Tennessee Great War Commission.
On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 an armistice was signed between the Allied Powers, which included the United States, the British Empire, France, Italy, Japan and 21 other countries, and the Central Powers of Germany, Bulgaria, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. The armistice ended fighting on land, sea and air until the official peace treaty — the Treaty of Versailles — was signed on June 28, 1919.
To commemorate this important date, a committee from members of Old Glory chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution have been working for two years to find and document all local “doughboys,” a nickname commonly used for American soldiers who served in WWI, and create a permanent WWI display in the Williamson County Archives and Museum.
“We found more than 300 soldiers who had not previously been identified in the veterans file collection [at the Williamson County Archives],” said Jamie Villers. “We also found one woman — a nurse. We created hard files of each and they were added to the 800 already in the file.”
The individual hard files contained copies of draft registrations, local board lists, if they went overseas, the passenger list of the boat they were on, their discharge papers and where they were buried, if the information was available.
“There were so many familiar family names,” said Villers.
In their research they also uncovered several stories that involved local soldiers.
One was the attempt to capture German Kaiser Wilhelm II after he took refuge in Holland. A group of Tennessee soldiers commandeered an Army vehicle and actually walked into the castle where the Kaiser was staying. Three were from Williamson County: Cpt. Tom Henderson, Owen Johnston and a man known as O’Reilly.
Sons of the Wilkins, Cannon and Kinnard families and all five sons of Sam Perkins were among the doughboys of WWI. They all returned home and started the Franklin Gun Club. They are also all buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery.
“Early on we realized we were not military experts but we learned a lot,” said Vevia Martin.
They learned the new language and slang words soldiers developed while sharing trenches with men from several different countries speaking either different languages or different versions of English. The soldiers brought some of their slang home, although many of the meanings have changed. During the war, basket case meant the soldier was in such bad shape they needed a basket in which to carry him; zig-zag was how an inebriated soldier walked; dingbat referred to the sound of artillery shells bouncing off helmets in the trenches. When the sound drove a man crazy, he had “shell shock,” Martin explained.
“The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was started in the 1920s after World War I as a means for the country to honor unknown soldiers who were killed in action,” she added. “After the Battle of Argonne [Forest] there were four caskets lined up with no tags. Sgt. Edward Younger laid a wreath on one of the caskets and named that the first unknown soldier.”
There are also unknowns entombed in Tomb of the Unknown in Arlington National Cemetery from World War I and II, the Korean War and Vietnam. With DNA widely used for identification, there will likely not be any more unknown soldiers, the group speculated.
Once the identification and display projects were completed, the DAR Old Glory WWI committee held an open house at the Archives and Museum complete with WWI “doughboy” reenactors from the Tennessee State Park’s Interpretive Programming at Alvin C. York State Park. The projects earned national recognition and awards during the DAR 127th Convention in Washington, D.C., in June.
On Veterans Day, Sunday, Nov. 11, Old Glory Members will place American flags on the graves of all WWI soldiers buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery.
Look for the Old Glory float in the annual Veterans Day parade on Monday, Nov. 12, at 11 a.m. on Main Street in downtown Franklin.
The final Old Glory WWI tribute will be held during their annual Christmas Tea at Carnton with a performance of the Christmas Truce. Four members will recite the play which tells the story of the Christmas when Christmas music brought the British and Germans out of the trenches to celebrate the birth of Christ together.
“The next day they were back fighting,” Martin said. “We hope by doing these things people will be reminded of the sacrifices these men and women made.”