Exactly one hundred years ago this week, Allied forces in World War I began their final offensive against Bulgaria. Their success meant that Bulgaria became the first of the Central Powers to accept defeat. It was, arguably, one of the first critical steps that led to the end of the war.
A little known part of little known Millicent Todd Bingham’s story is the part that focuses on her experiences in World War I. I’m not going to recount the whole story here – suffice to say that it’s an amazing tale of love and loss, and it’s one that profoundly affected her for the duration of her long life. It’s well documented in After Emily. But what I have found myself thinking about, throughout this entire year of 2018 when there’s been so much in the news about the 100th anniversary of end of World War I, is what Millicent would have thought about all this media coverage.
Of course I cannot know for sure, but I rather suspect that one of her major reactions to the news and feature stories in newspapers, the TV specials on The History Channel or CNN, the occasional thought-provoking reflection you can find on NPR or by perusing the internet, is that she would believe the focus is not what it should be. While the politics, the resulting shifts of geo-political alliances and, frankly, the gore, have been well covered, Millicent would find the patriotic fervor this war created for her and for so many Americans poorly represented in today’s popular press.
In 1918, Millicent decided that the pull of doing something for her country superseded the pull to continuing to work toward her Ph.D. at Harvard. She joined a women’s unit of the YMCA that was dispatched to France to provide aid for American troops. “For the first time I have a grasp of the glory of the canon for which I am going to work,” she wrote in her journal.
I spent a lot of time reading Millicent’s letters from France back home to her parents and to her friends. I went carefully through the diaries and journals she kept there during her two year stint. One of the common themes that came through over and over was her fervent belief that what she, along with all the women volunteers and the male military personnel were doing, was work that was not only personally gratifying, but truly important. “I wish I could even in [a] thousand years tell you how great the experiences we’re having here are, but I can’t,” she wrote home to Mabel. “ There is one thing I can say. That is that the courage and sublime unselfishness of these everyday soldiers is the biggest thing in this world, and I know it.”
After the armistice she wrote in her journal, “I came with the attitude I had since had since I arrived in France – that of wishing to give all I had, money, time, energy, to the very last ounce of it which was all too small, to help win the war. Our cause was not only worth it, it was a Holy Grail. Life itself was too poor to offer to such a cause. The world would not be worth living in if we failed. If we won a brighter, shining world would be the gift of our sacrifice and suffering to a loftier, more understanding race, who would stand upon our shoulders and go on rejoicing.”
And this feeling continued for the rest of her life. As the war in Vietnam ramped up and nightly news coverage contained not only the carnage from overseas, but also the increasing domestic protests against it, Millicent could not understand. She kept thinking back to her own experiences in France; while she recognized the discord of the 1960s, she couldn’t identify with it.
In a taped interview she did in her final decades, Millicent recounted, “I don’t know how to tell people of this modern generation about our feeling about that war. There was a feeling of such consecration – a feeling of such tremendous idealism and uplift. We felt that if there was anything that we had in the world we could offer to help the country to win that war it was all too little. And I, of course, felt at once that the thing which I had to offer was [my]ability to speak French, and I was very well and strong, so I volunteered.”