Until the United States entered the conflict in 1917 the Great War was but distant thunder to many Americans. By the time American troops came home from Europe in 1919 over a (X) had joined the nation’s armed forces. However prior to President Wilson’s call to arms a number of Americans, including many Kentuckians, were already in uniform fighting under the red ensign of Canada and the flags of Great Britain and France.
This program brings to life these colorful American volunteers who were the first to endure the horrors of the Western Front in France. Some were fugitives from the law, mental asylums or un-happy marriages. Others fought with such legendary forces as the French Foreign Legion or with the celebrated flyers of the Lafayette Escadrille. Others, like Robert E. Fleming, Jr., the first combat casualty from Louisville, fell fighting in the ranks of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The story of Alexander McClintock of Lexington was equally poignant. He became a national celebrity after he returned home from the Canadian Army bearing honors and wounds. However when he was about to be shipped back to the front with American forces in 1917 he took his own life.
Harvey E. Johnson of Louisville gained notoriety as the “Yankee Kid”, a 14-year-old runaway who served as a stretcher bearer in the British Army from 1914 to 1916. Kentucky women also left their homes to support the Allied war effort. Mary Curry Breckinridge of Lexington, who served as a nurse at a British front line hospital in returned to America to offer her services. Broken in health, she died before she could return overseas under the stars and stripes. The stories of these forgotten Kentuckians form a colorful chapter in the state’s First World War history.
James Prichard is a Manuscript Cataloger at The Filson Historical Society. He received his B.A. and M.A. from Wright State University. He is the author of Embattled Capital: Frankfort, Kentucky in the Civil War.
The Filson's WWI Exhibits will be open for half an hour before and after the event.