“Hell cannot be this dreadful. People are insane!”
Alfred Joubaire, a French soldier.
This was the last entry in Joubaire’s diary. He died shortly after writing these words in the blood, mud and cacophony that was the Battle of Verdun. My kinsman, Fritz Charles Weiss, was also at Verdun but somehow managed to avoid becoming one the more than 700,000 casualties produced by the 10-month struggle. Verdun was one of those ironies that war creates. On one hand it was a French victory because in the end they failed to yield to a ferocious German offensive. On the other, it had a devastating impact on the morale of both the soldiers and the nation—an impact that would be felt far into the future. None-the-less, Weiss survived and acquitted himself well. When the slaughter finally ended, he was decorated by General Jean-Marie Joseph Degoutte for, “conspicuous gallantry.”
Weiss was among the first wave of young Americans who chose not to sit out the Great War while their government weighed its options. Many enlisted with the Canadians; some with the British. Weiss—with deep family ties to both France and Germany—joined the French Army in November 1914 and became one of the relatively few Americans to survive the war from beginning to end. When the U.S. joined the conflict in 1917, he transferred to the Army’s Second Division. Unlike his fellow soldiers, Weiss was by this time a combat-hardened veteran. Perhaps then, it was not surprising when during the Battle of Belleau Woods he again distinguished himself. Discovering a company of American soldiers were isolated and about to be overrun by a German counter-attack, he drove a truckload of ammunition through intense machine gun fire across two open fields and a hedge to relieve them. This time he was personally decorated by General Pershing.
Weiss had entered the war on his own terms and ended his service the same way. He elected to remain in France rather being shipped home. He’d been born in in Strasbourg and spent his early childhood in that city. He returned there now and would never leave. By the time the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, this once promising concert pianist would succumb to wounds received at Belleau Woods. His will provided that his personal effects be sold and the proceeds donated to the Strasbourg Cathedral charity fund—a fund then aiding veterans and their families.
A hundred years have passed since Weiss went to war and ninety-five since he died. Many wars have been fought since. Many have died and many more have suffered devastating and life-altering wounds. Weiss’s donation reminds us that even as our weapons have become colossally expensive and combat even more lethal, our veterans and their families are still forced to rely on charity when the shooting stops. Times do change and some things get better. In the 60s and 70s it was de rigueur to spit on vets and key their cars. Today we say, “thank you for your service.” But the most seriously wounded vets are still charity cases when it comes to family support, rehabilitation, job training and even prosthetics. This Veteran’s Day be sure to thank a vet, but also consider making a donation—however small—to one of the fine organizations that does the work our government neglects. You might even consider dropping your Congressman a line asking why our wounded warriors have to rely on what amount to handouts to survive. Fritz Charles Weiss, thank you for your sacrifice—and for your donation. —Ebert