Armistice Day: 100 years later

While the people of Winters celebrated the end of WWI, the young men and women who served faced a long journey home.
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The city of Winters celebrated the end of World War I with music, bonfires and the peals of church bells from four in the morning till late that night. The city that rationed foods like flour and sugar, rallied for war bonds and sent their young men to the trenches celebrated the impending return of real bread and their boys. But the boys wouldn’t be coming home right away, and some of them wouldn’t come home at all. Some would lie injured in hospitals across Europe. Others would die from Spanish flu on the transatlantic voyage. Some families were going to receive letters saying that their sons had been dead for months. Dozens of young men from Yolo county served in WWI. Ray Williams, of Winters, served in America’s only gas regiment. Most of he boys from Winters served in the 91st Division. They were known as the “Wild West Division” and wore fir tree insignias on their shoulders. “One thing all the Germans know is to look out for the 91st division,” Caldwell Briggs of Winters wrote in a letter. In the weeks before the Allies and the Central Powers declared armistice, the 91st Division served in one final, terrible battle. The Battle of Meuse-Argonne was fought from Sept. 26, 1918, until the end of the war. Travelling only at night, the Division arrived at the trenches on Sept. 22, three days before the battle. They were sent to relieve the French troops. In darkness the Yolo county boys, never having fought in the trenches, silently traded places with the French soldiers who had been entrenched for four years. In the days leading up to the battle the young men had to stay quiet. Many had never even been in battle. They sat there knowing they were going “over the top” in a few days. At 2:30 a.m. on Sept. 26 every piece of American artillery fired at once. The shock waves were so intense that men were concussed. They charged onto No Man’s Land in a heavy fog, many of them without even an overcoat and all unable to see. It wouldn’t matter. The German machine gunners did not need to see their targets to hit them. The first four days of the Battle of Meuse-Argonne are still the most deadly in American casualties. The battle of Meuse-Argonne was meant to only last six days, but by the end of the third they had only gained a fraction of the ground they were meant to. “We were in a living hell on no man’s land for eight days and nights,” one young man said. By the time Armistice was declared, 26,000 were dead and 100,000 wounded. School children are taught that the armistice occurred on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. The truth is more complicated. Armistice was actually declared at 5 a.m., with the caveat that it wouldn’t be enacted until 11 a.m. The allied strategists intended to prove to the Germans that they had been soundly beaten. The order was sent out to use all the remaining ammunition and give those last few hours everything that they had. Over the course of those six hours 2,738 soldiers were killed and 8,000 were wounded. Units fired their last shots at 10:59 a.m., then posed for a picture at 11 a.m. Soldiers said that they were struck by the sudden silence after all of the guns stopped firing. Lieutenant Forest Akers of Esparto said that he remembered the moment he told his men that the war was over. They went quiet for a full minute. In the silence Akers remembers dropping to the ground, and said that as he lay there he could hardly keep from crying “to save my life.” Shellshock, also known as “war neurosis,” had only just been diagnosed. It was believed to be the effect of shockwaves from mortar shells. But somehow officers like Akers were suffering from shellshock at higher rates than the enlisted men. Medics were unable to find a physical cause for the sudden blindness, deafness or paralysis that would strike men down. Nowadays shellshock is understood to be a form of PTSD. At the time, people who suffered from it were ridiculed, arrested and even executed for their unrepentant “cowardice.” It is believed that officers suffered in larger numbers because they had to suppress their emotions in front of their men. Medical technology was changing. For the first time in history severely wounded soldiers could survive beyond the battlefield. Alta Ireland, a young woman from Winters, was the only nurse from Yolo county to serve in the trenches. She stayed on the front for 17 days, a rare feat for any woman serving. The Yolo boys wrote their families that it was nice to talk with someone from home. Her nickname was “Peaches.” Even though the men survived, the military did not know what to do with them. Many were alive, but in no condition to travel home. They were transported to hospitals across Europe. Families wouldn’t know which country their boy was in. Some families didn’t even know that their boy wasn’t ever coming home. News travelled slowly. Sometimes families wouldn’t receive news of their son until months after his death. “Ever since peace was declared I’ve been fixing up the boys room…” one Woodland mother told the newspaper. She didn’t know that her son had died in September. She wouldn’t get the news until late November. Other young men would return home, only to die from Spanish Flu within days of their arrival. In 1918 the flu killed 500 million people worldwide. The young and healthy were hit the hardest. The returning soldiers, crammed together in barracks and ships, were no exception. Through all of this boys still made it home to Winters. Victor Poggetto of the 40th division was the first to come home. Vernon Gregory got his old job at the Winters Dried Fruit Co. back. The Vasey brothers bought J. Rummelsburg’s dry goods store and opened their own grocery store. But they remembered those they’d left behind. The bodies of soldiers who died in Europe would remain there. Before returning home, Henry King of Winters wrote in a letter to his mother, “But there is a sadness of going too, when we think of leaving thousands of our own brave sleeping so sweet, so sound, where the crimson poppies blossom.”  ]]>

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