Frank Buckles died on Sunday, at age 110. Buckles was America’s last surviving World War I veteran. He enlisted at age 16, after lying to a recruiting officer about his age, and served as a clerk and ambulance driver in England and France. The Washington Post reports that, with Buckles’ death, only two of the 65 million people who served in World War I are still living.
There is something terribly final about the death of the last human being to personally experience a war. With Buckles’ passing, we lose the last American who was there during the awful carnage of trench warfare, the horrors of poison gas attacks, and the deadly charges across no man’s land into the teeth of barbed wire, machine gun bullets, and fortified bunkers. No more Americans will be personally tormented by nightmares of the deaths of their comrades during The Great War.
With the severing of the last human links to the fighting, World War I moves from the realm of personal experience to the exclusive province of historians. They will argue about tactics, and great historical forces, and issues like how the war could have been avoided and whether the German side could have prevailed had it acted differently. Eventually a war in which millions of people participated and millions died, a war which saw the development of new weapons like the airplane and the tank — a war that participants thought was surely The War To End All Wars — will become as abstract, dusty, and inexplicable as the Hundred Years’ War, the War of Jenkins’ Ear, or the War of Austrian Succession. Frank Buckles’ passing takes us one step closer to that reality.