"Their sacrifices remain timeless."
Composing “The Boys of ‘17”
By Gordon Thomas Ward
Special to the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission web site
In the fall of 2016, I found myself an exhibitor at a history conference in NJ, as many of my books and songs are about historic events and tell stories from the past. I had my CD Welcome to the Past playing on my table to increase traffic and interest when a woman named Nancy stopped by from a neighboring table to say she represented a genealogical society and was drawn to the historical stories she heard in my songs. This prompted a very nice conversation between us. Several weeks later, Nancy telephoned me to ask if I would be interested in writing a song about the men who died in service to our country during World War One. As fate would have it, she was working on an event to honor them in her town of Westfield, NJ. I immediately said, “Yes.”
After hanging up the phone, I realized I had some research to do. I had been a history teacher, and I knew the basic facts behind the war, but I wanted to make it personal. As a songwriter, I wanted to write a song that was about one soldier and every soldier at the same time. I needed to get into the heads of the men who served and died in The Great War. Consequently, I set out on a learning quest.
I’ve never fired a gun, except for a pellet gun that I used to shoot at cans on a fence post when I was eleven years old under my godfather’s watchful eyes and guidance. Having grown up in the 1960s, I know nothing of soldiering from experience, aside from the graphic photos and film clips I’ve seen on newscasts. As a result, I delved into reading personal accounts from WWI soldiers, reviewing pamphlets, and watching historic video footage. Eventually, I settled on a title, “The Boys of ’17,” and the flesh and bones of the song took shape and gelled in my mind, as the creative gears began to turn.
It became quite apparent to me that most of the men (‘boys”) that served in WWI had no experiential reference point from which to prepare themselves for the situations awaiting them. Oh, sure, they went through basic training and learned how to soldier, but nothing could ever prepare them for the absolute hell on earth that they were about to witness. Farmhands and professional men, urban and suburban gentlemen, and back-country boys, barely out of their teens, were massed together amidst the glorious posters, parades, send-offs, and patriotic music. Clearly, they were made aware of the dangers and perils, but it was impossible for them to prepare emotionally and wrap their heads around the experiences they were about to have.
Life in the trenches on the Western Front was a scene out of Dante’s hell. As the lyrics in “The Boys of ‘17” mention, there was mud, disease, and cold like few of us have experienced. Rats were a very common sight, and gas warfare was a constant threat. One needed to be on guard constantly during times of attack. The zigzag pattern of the trenches created a situation where enemy soldiers with bayonets and rifles might be just around the corner of one’s trench section. The stress was never-ending and highly intense.
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Plaque honors MT women veterans of WWI
By Ed Kemmick
via Last Best News
Billings, MT – One hundred years to the day after the United States entered World War I, 23 female veterans of that conflict received a long-overdue salute.
A plaque memorializing the 23 women with connections to Yellowstone County, MT who served in World War I was dedicated April 6. (Ed Kemmick/Last Best News)A plaque honoring the women, all of whom were either born or buried in Yellowstone County, or entered federal service here, was dedicated Thursday morning on the lawn of the Yellowstone County Courthouse.
Ed Saunders, an Army veteran from Laurel who spent six years finding the female veterans and chronicling their service, called his quest “an effort to shine the light and show the road back home for them, as they have been largely lost to Montana history.”
Ed SaundersHe said it was the duty of people all over Montana to “follow our lead and find, validate and honor the military service of Montana’s women veterans of World War I.” Dedicating the plaque, he said, was a way of saying, “Well done, women veterans of World War I from Yellowstone County. You are forgotten no more.”
The dedication was attended by local government officials, representatives of local law enforcement, many veterans, representatives of both of Montana’s U.S. senators and more than 100 onlookers.
Three special guests were members of the Mission Valley Honor Guard—all of them female veterans who are also enrolled members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in northwestern Montana.
Saunders’ researches are not confined to Yellowstone County, and one of his most recent discoveries was the service record of Regina McIntyre Early, an Army nurse who served in four hospitals in France during World War I. Early belonged to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and Saunders thinks she might be the first female veteran of WWI who was an enrolled member of an American Indian tribe in Montana.
Saunders recounted her story and those of several of the women listed on the plaque, noting that while no American servicewomen—almost all of them Army nurses or Navy clerical workers—died from hostile fire during World War I, “hundreds died from disease, accidents of war and utter exhaustion.”
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