On November 11, we will commemorate the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, the end of World War I—“the war to end all wars.” The ceasefire was set for “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month,” ending a conflict that had killed 16 million and caused 37 million casualties. The War decimated the flower of a generation in Europe, and the punitive terms demanded by the Allied victors of Germany stoked the rise of National Socialism, Hitler, and, ultimately, World War II, which would result in over 50 million dead.
World War I inspired towering works of art, such as Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front; memoirs by Siegfried Sassoon; poetry by Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, and John McCrae; and Benjamin Britten’s monumental War Requiem, after an unforgettable performance of which I attended in Kings College Chapel, Cambridge, the crowd departed in stunned silence.
My family has a personal connection to the war’s end, and a group of cousins will dine to honor our paternal great-uncle, Lieutenant Pierce H. Butler, who joined General John J. Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force in the summer of 1918 to fight in the Second Battle of the Marne. It was there at Soissons that he was fatally wounded by sword the day after the Armistice had been declared, but before word of it had reached the front lines—something almost impossible to imagine in our world of instant messaging a century later.
Pierce Butler died of gangrene in a field hospital two weeks later. My great-grandfather never recovered. “James Butler was a hard man,” his chauffeur, James Byrnes, told me when I interviewed him on his 100th birthday 30 years ago, “but Pierce’s death broke his heart, and he was never the same after. He wanted Pierce to take over the family grocery business. All the employees loved him, because he was a regular fella.”
After finishing officer’s training in upstate Plattsburgh but before embarking for France, Lt. Butler had married Maud O’Brien, the daughter of New York Supreme Court Judge Morgan J. O’Brien, in April of 1918 at the Church of Saint Vincent Ferrer. Widowed after only seven months of marriage, Aunt Maud observed a lengthy period of mourning but later married Gerald Dempsey and moved to Palm Beach. In 1926 they had a son, George, the well-known restaurateur and raconteur who died earlier this year at 91, and whose popular hangout, Dempsey’s, my maternal cousin Michael McCarty took over in the early 2000s and operated successfully for over a decade.
And so our ever-intertwined lives go on. My cousins and I will raise a glass to Uncle Pierce and to all our fallen heroes on the Armistice centenary.
May their memory be an everlasting blessing.