wwi World War I history iowa (copy)

The Council Bluffs-based mobile medical unit known as Unit K returned from service in World War I to a hero's welcome. Led by Major Donald Macrae Jr., the unit was one of the first mobile medical units in American military history.

A century ago, the close of World War I left the world stunned.

The conflict spurred upheaval on an extraordinary scale and took 20 million lives, military and civilian. The four years of bitter fighting shattered empires and redrew the map of Europe. The war weakened Russia’s czarist regime and allowed the Bolsheviks to seize power. And the conflict led the United States to step out of isolation and place major combat forces on European soil, where they engaged in horrific fighting.

The war took the lives of 116,000 Americans, including more than 1,500 Nebraskans and 3,500 Iowans.

In the wake of such death and destruction, countries mourned, and memorials arose to honor the fallen dead. In Nebraska, the most ambitious statement of respect and reverence came in October 1923, when people gathered to dedicate the new Memorial Stadium. Calls to build the structure had arisen after Roscoe “Dusty” Rhodes, captain-elect of the NU football team, was killed in combat in France in 1918. The $450,000 construction cost was covered by pledges from boosters, alumni, staff and students.

U.S. forces in Europe had been led by Gen. John J. Pershing, who had taught military science at NU in the 1890s and earned his law degree there. More than 55,000 Nebraskans and 114,000 Iowans fought in the war.

Nebraska mobilized in various ways to support the war effort. Fort Omaha became a hub of training for military balloons, with blimp pilots dubbed the “eyes of the Army.” Fort Robinson provided cavalry training. The University of Nebraska College of Medicine ran Base Hospital No. 49 in France, with personnel drawn largely from the school’s faculty and alumni.

This weekend, on the centennial of the armistice ending World War I, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln will salute the sacrifices made during that conflict and honor all of our country’s veterans. The NU-Illinois game on Saturday will hold Veterans Day activities, including a video tribute and an honor guard in World War I uniforms. The public is invited to attend a ceremony at 7:45 Sunday morning for the dedication of two Memorial Stadium plaques honoring those who served in World War I.

Iowans, too, will pause this week to remember the men and women who served during the “Great War.” On Saturday, the State Historical Museum of Iowa in Des Moines will hold a centennial commemoration, with programs and exhibits about the war. The museum will show the movie “Wings,” about World War I aerial combat. In 1929, the film won the first Academy Award for Best Picture.

An Iowan, Marion Crandell, was the first U.S. woman to die of injuries in a combat zone. An artillery shell took her life while she was serving in a canteen in France.

“With the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, we have an opportunity to honor those who served and sacrificed in the name of freedom,” said Susan Kloewer, administrator of the State Historical Society of Iowa. “It’s part of our mission to help Iowans understand the roles earlier generations of Iowans played both here and abroad.”

Indeed so. Although a century now separates us from the tumult of World War I, it’s appropriate for Midlanders to pause this week and remember our forebears’ sacrifices in that horrendous conflict.

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.