Friday, May 26, 2017

Honoring Tennessee's World War I veterans on Memorial Day

By Allison Griffey

Memorial Day, formerly known as Decoration Day, has been celebrated for over 150 years. Initially, only Civil War dead were honored on this day; however, this tradition changed almost a century ago at the close of World War I. Over 53,000 Americans died in World War I and around 4,000 of those servicemen were Tennesseans. After sustaining such a great loss, Americans began to honor those who gave their lives in military service on Memorial Day.

Crowds line the streets as returning World War I soldiers parade up Capitol Boulevard. Between March 31 & April 6, 1919, a temporary victory arch was installed at the intersection of Capitol Boulevard and Union Street, and returning soldiers marched through the arch toward the Capitol.
Library Collection. Tennessee State Library and Archives

Likewise, World War I added to the Memorial Day tradition as the American Legion Auxiliary encouraged citizens to purchase and wear red poppies made by veterans in remembrance of the war dead. The poppy was popularized by the poem “In Flanders Fields” by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrea, written in 1915 after presiding over the funeral of his comrade, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, who died in the Second Battle of Ypres.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

According to the American Battle Monuments Commission, there are four Tennesseans buried in Flanders Field American Cemetery. One of these soldiers, Private Fred C. Guth, has a file in the Tennessee Gold Star Records, available on the Tennessee Virtual Archive. Pvt. Guth served in Headquarters Company, 119th Infantry Regiment as a part of the famed 30th Infantry Division, also known as the “Old Hickory” Division because it was composed of National Guard units from North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

Fred C. Guth, United States Army Infantry, 30th Division, 119th Regiment
Tennessee World War I Gold Star Records, Tennessee Virtual Archive

In the last letter his mother received, written “Somewhere in France” Aug. 4, 1918, Pvt. Guth wrote “I know you are worrying but Mamma you must think about you are one in millions, and be glad that you do not have to worry for all of us, and have faith and hopes of me getting through safe and I will do my part.” Though Pvt. Guth never returned from Flanders Field, Americans have continued to “hold the torch high” on Memorial Day by honoring those of us who have made the supreme sacrifice.

American Legion Auxiliary's Poppy Poster Contest shows children with posters, circa 1950.
Library Collection. Tennessee State Library and Archives

To learn more about Tennessee's role in World War I, we encourage you to visit our "World War I" page on the Military Records section of our website. From there you can view our Resource Guide to World War I records. You can also view digital images from the First World War on the Tennessee Virtual Archive, including Tennessee's Gold Star Records.

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

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