The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The U.S. joined the ‘Great War’ 100 years ago. America and warfare were never the same.

Arnold S. Hoke, who served in combat in World War I, married Army nurse Clara Lewandoske after the war. (Patricia Munson-Siter/Library of Congress)

At night when things were quiet in the “jaw ward,” the wounded doughboys would take out their small trench mirrors and survey the damage to their faces.

Noses had been shot off in the fighting at Saint-Mihiel. Chins were destroyed in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. Mouths had been torn apart in the battle of Belleau Wood.

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It was 1918, and Clara Lewandoske, a 25-year-old Army nurse from Wisconsin, was caring for these cases in a Red Cross hospital in Paris. “They were wonderful boys,” she recalled, and rarely complained.

But at night, if she saw one with a mirror, she would go to his bedside and start chatting. “Get them off of the subject,” she said. “Invariably, you’d get them to sleep.”

In time, they got used to their injuries. “We all did,” she said. “It was just one of those things.”

Lewandoske and her “boys” were among the millions of Americans who served in World War I — soldiers, sailors, nurses; white, black and Latino — who were caught up in the cataclysm, which the United States entered 100 years ago on April 6.

Among them was an Army sergeant from Iowa named Arnold Hoke, who would one day become Clara’s husband.

Tens of thousands from their generation would perish on the battlefield — 25,000 in one six-week period alone — and many thousands more would die of disease.

Others came home physically or emotionally broken.

“There are, it may be, many months of fiery trial,” President Woodrow Wilson had warned Congress that April. “It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war.… But the right is more precious than peace.”

This month, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, the Smithsonian Institution, and the National World War I Museum and Memorial, in Kansas City, are marking the anniversary with exhibits, lectures and commemorations.

World War I started in Europe in the summer of 1914, and ended on Nov. 11, 1918. The United States entered the conflict after France, Russia and Britain had battled Germany and its allies for almost three years.

And American might was brought to bear against Germany only in the closing months of the conflict, but just in time to help reverse the enemy’s huge, last-gasp offensive and end the war.

Christmas 1914 brought the men out of the trenches, the slaughter to a stop

The United States, although badly divided, had been provoked to join the war by the sinking of neutral American ships by German submarines, and by a secret German deal to offer Mexico the states of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona if it joined the German cause.

The offer, outlined in the “Zimmerman telegram,” was sent in code by German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmerman to the German ambassador in Mexico.

It was intercepted, hit the newspapers March 1, 1917, and created a national uproar.

Five weeks later, in a one-paragraph congressional resolution, the United States declared war.

In those days, it was called the “Great War,” or simply “the world war,” because no other like it was imaginable.

Along with staggering death tolls, it generated memorable literature, geopolitical upheaval, hope, disillusion, Hitler, the Russian Revolution, and the seeds of World War II.

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For Americans, it provided, among other things, trench food called “corn willy,” the Selective Service System, the double-edged safety razor, and George M. Cohan’s anthem, “Over there.”

Send the word, send the word over there
That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming
The drums rum-tumming everywhere.

But over there, the Yanks would find nightmare landscapes scarred by trenches and shell holes, and “mud that swallowed men, machines and horses without a trace,” wrote historian David M. Kennedy.

There were horrific weapons like the flamethrower, the machine gun, and phosgene gas, and the bullet-swept region between the lines known as no man’s land.

It was “industrialized death,” as the late art critic Robert Hughes put it.

When the U.S. entered the struggle in 1917, the conflict already had claimed 5 million lives.

First Americans to die in WWI may have been volunteers in the French army

But the Yanks were game.

So prepare, Cohan’s lyrics went, say a prayer,
Send the word, send the word to beware
We’ll be over, we’re coming over
And we won’t come back till it’s over, over there.

‘There’s nothing pleasant about war.’

Sgt. Arnold S. Hoke and his men had just hauled a supply of rations and ammunition overnight to their comrades at the front, and by the time they arrived the food was cold and congealed in grease.

In the dark and the rain, he and his detail had gotten lost, and they had not found his company until after dawn.

But the famished soldiers gathered in a patch of woods in the Argonne Forest, in northeastern France, to devour the food anyhow.

“The men lined up, and they started to dish out this food to them,” Hoke remembered. “The captain told me to — he knew I’d been up all night — and he told me to go over there in the basement of this farmhouse and get a little sleep.”

Hoke, 25, was a veteran who had served on the Mexican border in 1916.

He had been honorably discharged and had reenlisted after the United States entered the war.

A native of Spaulding, Iowa, he was assigned to recruit local Iowa men for what became Company M of the Army’s 168th Infantry Regiment.

By mid-1918, he and his men already had been through a lot, he recalled in a tape recording he made on April 12, 1971, that is now part of the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress.

(A similar recording made by his wife also resides with the project.)

Often, the soldiers would talk about what they would do when they got home, “all kinds of silly things,” Hoke said. He planned to go to the local drugstore and have a thick pineapple malt as soon as he got back.

One doughboy, a man he had recruited from Atlantic, Iowa, said he figured he would be wounded, lose a leg, and meet his comrades at the train station. “I’ll get back home before you guys,” he told his buddies.

He’d have a hollow artificial leg, fill it with whiskey, and pass it around so all the boys could have a drink.

As Hoke rested in the farmhouse that day, German artillery had zeroed in on the trees where his comrades were eating.

“They threw a salvo of shells into this woods,” he said. “And they caught our men all lined up waiting for their chow.”

Fifteen to 20 men were killed, and about 30 were wounded, he remembered, including the man from Atlantic.

One of his legs had been practically blown off, Hoke recalled, and was just hanging by a few ligaments. He was conscious as he lay on the ground, and didn’t seem to be in a lot of pain.

“You guys thought I was kidding,” Hoke remembered him saying. “I’ll meet you at the depot with that wooden leg full of bourbon.”

Hoke said the soldier was taken to a battlefield dressing station, where the damaged leg was amputated.

But the man died in an ambulance en route to the rear.

“I apologize for a rather unpleasant war story,” Hoke said on the recording. “Let me assure you there’s nothing pleasant about war, in any shape or manner, and I just hope that nobody will ever see another one.”

The day after he got home from France, he went to the drugstore and got his pineapple malt.

The night it got to be too much

Nurse Clara Lewandoske recalled only one night when she fell apart during the war.

It was in Paris’s Lycée Pasteur, a high school that had been made into a 2,400-bed hospital, during a period of heavy fighting, when the wounded and sick soldiers would come pouring in from the front.

Some of the cases were horrific.

She once found a soldier who had wandered from his bed.

“It was a gorgeous moonlit night,” she recalled. “I came out in the hall. Here was this patient sitting in the doorway. He had taken his bandage off, and it looked like half of his head was gone. It was a horrible sight. It shook me more than anything else in the whole war.”

“We got him back to bed, and he died before morning,” she said.

An American sculptor’s masks restored French soldiers disfigured in WWI

Lewandoske had 36 patients in four wards to care for. At night, she and other nurses walked the corridors with lanterns shrouded with denim, to guard against air raids, she recalled.

They often worked on patients by candlelight.

One night it got to be too much.

“I was a pretty calm individual,” she said. She had been orphaned at 9 and raised by the family of a local minister. Back home, she had once assisted at a surgery done on a dining room table.

But during an awful night in the hospital, with soldiers crying out from all over, “I did cave in,” she said. “I got hysterical.… We just couldn’t get around to everything. We had hemorrhages … [and] a lot of sick boys.”

It was heartbreaking. “We were mother and sister and home to them,” she said.

On Nov. 11, 1918, the war ended with an armistice. She happened to be in downtown Paris when word came.

“All hell broke loose,” she recalled. “It was a terrific thing. You didn’t know whether you’d survive to or not.… It was just the wildest time.”

American nurses were hugged and serenaded, she said. “We saw our chief nurse … she was quite old, and they had her on a cannon, pulling her down through the main streets of Paris.”

Clara and Arnold came home from the war in 1919.

In September 1921, she was a delegate to the American Legion convention in Kansas City. Also in attendance was Arnold. They met and fell in love. They were married Nov. 22, 1922, lived through the Depression, and raised two children.

Arnold died July 30, 1971, four months after they recorded their memories. He was 78. Clara died June 27, 1984, at the age of 91. According to granddaughter Patricia Munson-Siter, they are buried side by side in the military section of Greenwood Memorial Park, in San Diego.

Both grave markers cite their service in the Great War.