Silent night, deadly night: World War I remains known for its use of poison gas, including chemical agents that could alternately choke a person to death or blister their body. A century ago, Greene County troops were spending their first Christmas on the Western Front.An American soldier (left) undergoes bayonet fighting instruction by an English sergeant major at Camp Dick, Texas, between 1917 and 1918.

The Christmas spirit didn’t last, and we suffered for it


I’m probably overly simplistic, but for as long as I’ve been alive, I’ve never been able to figure out why the Christmas spirit can’t be sustained throughout an entire year.

On one hand, I suppose that if we were kind and thoughtful toward one another year-round, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas — and then we wouldn’t get the dopamine rush that comes with giving and receiving gifts.

So for all we know, it’s a Wall Street conspiracy to make people feel just good enough to boost consumer spending at a time when retailers need an extra push.

Then it’s right back to pushing and shoving each other.

A century ago, American troops were spending their first Christmas on the Western  Front during World War I.

After sitting out the first three years of the war, Americans had finally started coming ashore in June 1917, and by Nov. 3, Glidden’s Merle Hay was dead — one of the first three Americans killed in this supposed war to end all wars.

One hundred Novembers ago, William Dugan, a soldier from Rippey, had no idea who he was helping bury beneath French soil.

He initially had no idea that the young man with the cut throat and a half-dozen bayonet wounds grew up just 30 miles from where he grew up, proving that even in the midst of a world war, it could still be a small world.

It turned out to be Pvt. Hay, 21.

You won’t find a more profound argument for prolonging the Christmas spirit than World War I.

On Christmas Day, 1914, a spontaneous truce broke out on the front, with opposing German and British troops crawling out of their trenches to exchange holiday greetings with one other across the mud, shell holes and barbed wire of No Man’s Land.

Needless to say, the goodwill didn’t last.

Come spring at the Second Battle of Ypres, the Germans attacked with chlorine gas, as if trench warfare wasn’t ghastly enough.

A year later at the Battle of the Somme, German machine gunners managed to wipe 20,000 British soldiers off the face of the Earth in a single day, a statistic that almost needs to be read twice to comprehend. (By comparison, 7,058 soldiers on both sides were killed at Gettysburg during the Civil War.)

It bears asking: How might history have been altered had the Christmas truce of 1914 held?

There are all sorts of geopolitical what-ifs, but most immediate is that Greene County wouldn’t have lost 45 of its own. Nearly 900 local men would come to serve in World War I, with 33 perishing to disease.

Scranton would be hit the hardest, losing 12 men to the war.

As fate would have it, the luck of two Greene Countians — Jefferson’s Floyd W. Brown and Paton’s C. Arthur Anderson — finally ran out on Nov. 10, 1918, which turned out to be the last day of World War I.

The family of a Grand Junction boy, James Kersey, endured the worst-possible Christmas in 1918 with the news in December that he’d been killed in action on Oct. 10.

Then, however, the Kersey family got to experience the best-ever New Year when, on Dec. 31, a letter arrived at the Jefferson post office from their dead son, who was actually quite alive and well.

Kersey’s parents had received one other letter from their son dated after Oct. 10, but the War Department insisted he was dead.

Still, not all who survived came back whole.

Halsey Hoover, of Grand Junction, was said to have been a laid back, amiable guy before  the war. He was 27 when he shipped out.

After being gassed in France, he returned a sullen man who looked as if he’d encountered the Devil himself — before the war, his hair was black, but when he came home, it had gone completely white on one side.

If you’re looking for something to do over Christmas break, let me put in a word for the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum at Camp Dodge in Johnston.

For starters, admission is free.

Camp Dodge is indelibly linked to World War I, and the museum in 2016 opened an exhibit that tries to convey what it may have felt like to be in a trench at night, complete with machine gun sound effects and floorboards that shake under your feet.

My son refuses to go in by himself.

Of the dozen Greene County men killed in action during World War I, none is more heartbreaking than the death of Lowrie Warren, of Scranton.

Just in time for the holidays in 1918, his family received word via telegram of his death in France on Oct. 8. He was 27.

Warren — some sources list the spelling of his first name as Lowery — left home in September 1917 with a contingent of fellow Greene County soldiers to serve as a veterinary surgeon.

He died, not entangled in barbed wire or behind the ghoulish facade of a gas mask, but innocently drinking a cup of coffee.

He wasn’t even near the front.

A comrade from California later wrote to Mrs. Hazel (Cook) Warren in Scranton about the circumstances of her husband’s death.

The friend explained that Warren was enjoying a cup of coffee, laughing and joking, when a shell literally fell from the sky.

One second he was alive — so alive — the next he was dead.

Warren and two others were killed.

The friend was unscathed only because he had taken a wounded mule to a dressing station moments before.

“Death was absolutely instantaneous,” the friend wrote in his letter, reprinted Dec. 18, 1918, in the Jefferson Bee, “and the men who were about said the shell arrived from such a distance that it was heard only for a slight fraction of a second, if at all.”

The Warrens had been married only since January 1917. Their only child, a son named Merle, was just three weeks old when Lowrie Warren left home.

“He was very proud indeed of you and the little boy,” the friend wrote. “He often spoke to me of you, and lived looking forward to his return to you and the little boy. He was faithful to you all in every thought.”

“The picture of the baby you sent him awhile before,” the letter continued, “he always carried with him and I believe it was on him when he died.”

We’ve said it 99 times since then — but this Christmas, may the words “peace on Earth, goodwill toward men” be something more than just a saying.

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