When it was Over Over There: Florida Soldiers and the End of World War I
Today we bring you a guest post by R. Boyd Murphree, Project Manager, Florida Family and Community History, Digital Services and Shared Collections, University of Florida, George A. Smathers Libraries. He can be contacted at email@example.com and is also on Twitter @boyd_murphree.
November 11, 1918, the last day of World War I, was anything but quiet on the Western Front. Although the high commands of the combatants knew that the armistice or cease fire agreement signed early that morning called for the combat to end at 11 am, the habits of four years of warfare kept the armies fighting into the final hour. Some American commanders, fully aware of the armistice deadline, decided not to waste the lives of their men now that the war was about to end. Other commanders believed that Allied orders to maintain pressure on the Germans meant they should attack until the armistice was in effect. In a few cases, American generals seeking to enhance their wartime resumes insisted on assaulting German positions during the war’s final minutes. The last German-held French town to fall to the Americans was Stenay on the Meuse River. American troops captured Stenay only fifteen minutes before the armistice began at a cost of 365 casualties, 61 of them deaths. The last morning of the war produced 2,738 American deaths out of a total of 10,944 casualties on all sides.
Out of the 20 million deaths in World War I, 116,516 were Americans and 1,134 of those were Floridians. In all, over 42,000 Floridians served in the war. The first Floridian to die was Second Lieutenant Wiley H. Burford of Ocala. He was killed by a German bullet in France on February 14, 1918. Burford was a graduate of Princeton University and was attending law school at the University of Florida when he entered the Army’s officer training camp at Fort McPherson in Atlanta. According to the Ocala Evening Star, the news of Wiley’s death spread through downtown Ocala “as swiftly as fire follows a train of powder,” taking “the smile off of every face.” The newspaper praised his sacrifice: “He died for America; he died for France; he died for right and justice and the welfare of the whole world.” His death, the writer hoped, would inspire reluctant volunteers, “whose feet are slow to enter the pathway of duty and honor.” The university made many tributes to Wiley, including the dedication of the 1919 Seminole yearbook in his honor. A poem in the yearbook proclaimed Wiley “Florida’s First to Fall.” The student newspaper, The Florida Alligator, also paid respect to Wiley’s loss and the deaths of the other UF students who died in the war.
Many of Florida’s war dead, including the UF students, fell to disease rather than bullets. Most fell victim to the influenza pandemic that ended the lives of some 20 to 40 million people worldwide in 1918–1919. Up to half of the American soldiers who died in Europe during the war died of the flu, not from enemy fire. In an article entitled “Uncle Sam’s Advice on Flu,” the US Public Health Service warned that the disease was “As Dangerous as Poison Gas Shells.” J. M. Wilson, a Floridian serving in the Navy, learned the truth of that warning when he returned from France at war’s end only to discover that his mother and two brothers had died from the flu in Pensacola. On October 17, 1918, less than a month before the armistice, Private Lee Bradley, an African American soldier in the 546th Engineer Battalion, died of pneumonia, most likely due to the flu. Private Bradley’s body was eventually returned to Florida. He was buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Rochelle, Alachua County, where his family lived. His headstone declares that he died “For World Liberty” and bears an inscription common for the war’s dead: “He left his home in perfect health, He looked so young and brave, We little thought how soon He would be laid in a Soldier’s grave.”
Private Bradley was one of over 13,000 African American Floridians who served in the Army during World War I: the US Navy and Marines did not take black men as regular enlistees, only as servants and cooks. Racism consigned the majority of black soldiers to service or labor in battalions like the 546th Engineers, Lee Bradley’s unit. Black troops also performed essential support functions in the Army’s artillery, signal, medical, and veterinary corps and often came under enemy fire. The Lakeland Evening Telegram was enthusiastic about the service of black troops. In an article on “The Negro and the War,” the paper applauded black patriotism and their patience under fire, but could not refrain from a paternalistic tone when it noted that the black soldiers were “cheerful and good natured at all times.” The article painted black troops as men without grievances, when such incidents as the Houston Riot of 1917 clearly showed the extent of African American soldiers’ resentment of their country’s racism.
On November 11, 1918, however, the nation seemed to put aside racial ill will for a day as Americans of all backgrounds celebrated the end of the Great War. Expectation of an end to the fighting rose dramatically as early as November 8, when news leaked that German representatives had arrived at Allied headquarters to discuss an armistice. Rumors of war’s end brought people out in the streets in cities across the United States after false reports that the Germans had agreed to an armistice spread through American newspapers. As a result, according to the Associated Press, “Business was suspended, schools closed, bells were rung and whistles shrieked. Prayers were offered in churches and parading citizens jammed the streets.” Finally, on the afternoon of November 11, newspapers could unleash the long-awaited headline of “Peace! Armistice Signed—World War Ends” and simply “The War Is Over.”
Only a few days after the armistice began, sentiment in the United States favored making November 11 a national holiday, even though the Fourth of July did not yet have such status. Proclaiming November 11 “the greatest day in the history of the world,” the Jacksonville Florida Times-Union argued that Thanksgiving should be moved to November 11 as the day was truly one of thanksgiving for the nation and the world. On November 11, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson recognized the importance of the day one year after the armistice was signed, releasing a prepared statement that henceforth Americans would hold Armistice Day as a day of “solemn pride.” The president was not present at ceremonies commemorating the anniversary as he was confined to his bed in the White House after suffering a stroke that left him partially paralyzed, unable to perform his public duties. He had sacrificed his health trying to get the nation to support and the US Senate to pass the Treaty of Versailles, which formally ended the war, and included the League of Nations, which Wilson believed would be instrumental in maintaining future peace. The Senate rejected the treaty and the League. Americans would go on to observe Armistice Day each year. In 1938, the day became a national holiday, and in 1954, Congress changed Armistice Day to Veterans Day to honor veterans of all the country’s wars.
The University of Florida did not forget its dead. On October 13, 1934, the university dedicated Florida Field to the memory of all the Florida servicemen who gave their lives in the war. Florida governor David Sholtz and university president John Tigert led the unveiling of two memorial plaques. Placed on the north wall of the stadium, one plaque dedicated the field to all of Florida’s Great War fallen; the other plaque memorialized the names of university alumni who had perished in the war, including Wiley H. Burford, the first of Florida’s Great War dead. Generations of UF football fans have passed these memorials on Gator Game Days. How many have taken a moment to remember the young men who never returned from Over There?
Citations and Additional Sources:
Billings, Molly. The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 (https://virus.stanford.edu/uda/).
Marlin, Pam Hawley. UF and The Great War (http://www.dmarlin.com/uf-then-now/ww1/).
Persico, Joseph. E. Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour: Armistice Day, 1918 World War I and Its Violent Climax. New York, Random House, 2004.
_______________. “World War I: Wasted Lives on Armistice Day.” Military History Quarterly (Winter 2005). Published online by HistoryNet, June 12, 2006 (http://www.historynet.com/world-war-i-wasted-lives-on-armistice-day.htm).
United States World War One Centennial Commission. Florida (https://www.worldwar1centennial.org/index.php/261-florida.html).