The past few years have marked a century since the war that promised to end all wars. We know that the world didn’t learn its lesson, and so the Great War became World War I. This is the story of Russell Silverthorn, Lee Silverthorn, and Josef Wäschle, my great uncles who fought on opposite sides of World War I, a four-year conflict which resulted in more than 18-million deaths.
When I learned about the death of my American uncle, Russell Silverthorn, I hated the German soldiers who threw the grenades that tore him apart. But then, I heard the story of my German uncle, Josef Wäschle, who lost his life to a French soldier’s bullet. This made me aware that everyone alive during WWI, no matter their nationality, was caught in a nightmare. This included Russell’s brother, Lee, who survived the war, but brought home with him the burden of grief.
The German Soldier: Josef Wäschle
My grandmother, Catherine Wäschle, was the oldest of five children. She was born in 1894 in a village called Oberheim in southern Germany. Her father was a shoemaker who had fallen on hard times when factories started making cheap shoes that were considered more fashionable. They were so poorly made that they couldn’t be repaired when the soles became loose.
Catherine had two sisters and two brothers. One brother was too young to go to war, but the other, Josef, joined the 475th Infantry Regiment, 5th Company, in the German army. According to my uncle and family historian, Daniel Silverthorn:
Manning a lookout post at night, he [Josef] was shot in the head with a 7mm rifle, the bullet entering just above one of his eyebrows but not exiting, indicating that it was fired from long range. His relief found him lying in a mud puddle at the base of his elevated position. The Frenchman who fired the shot was probably one of those brave volunteers who occupied ‘no man’s land’ and moonlight, which must have been present for him to draw a bead on Joe’s head, providing him with a literal headstart on his sniping activities for the coming daylight. The bullet couldn’t be removed so Joe survived with it in a field hospital (feldlazarett) for 6 days.”
Josef Wäschle died on June 18, 1917, at the age of 19, in Field Hospital 184 and was buried in a cemetery in Tagnon near Reims. According to my grandmother, when her mother received the news that Josef was dead, she collapsed to the ground and begged God to take one of her daughters instead. My grandmother said this made her and her sisters feel like “two cents.”
The American Soldier: Russell Worth Silverthorn
My grandfather, Burton Silverthorn, was the second youngest of four children. He was born in Fairview, Pennsylvania, in 1897, and his mother died of pneumonia when he was just seven years old. His father was not suited to single parenthood, so the three boys and one girl were distributed among relatives. The siblings stayed connected, even though they lived apart from each other.
In April 1917, the oldest brother, Russell, age 23, enlisted in Company G of the National Guard in Erie, Pennsylvania. Company G became part of the 112th infantry regiment, within the 28th division of the United States Army. The second-oldest brother, Lee, had already enlisted the month before.
Russell and Lee trained at Camp Hancock, just outside Augusta, Georgia, before being shipped out to Europe on the Aquitaine from Hoboken, New Jersey, in May of 1918. In July at Chateau Thierry, France, Lee suffered burns from mustard gas, a devastating injury, but this probably saved his life.
During the Second Battle of the Marne, in August 1918, Russell Silverthorn fought in a bloody massacre at the villages of Fismes and Fismette, located on the Vesle River. The commander of the 112th infantry, Colonel George C. Rickards, realized that his men were outflanked by the Germans and requested orders to withdraw. Permission sailed up the chain of command until it reached the French General Jean DeGoutte, who commanded the American forces. DeGoutte denied the request, stating that a “close touch” had to be maintained with the enemy. This decision cost Russell, and many other young men, their lives and is now known as the Tragedy at Fismette.
After Russell’s death, his uncle, Carl Hale Silverthorn, received the following statement from a man named Mr. Scott, from Company G, Bradford, Pennsylvania:
I was a First Aid man and with my partner was detailed to do the work of Co. F, G and H. After we were captured I convinced the Germans that we were First Aid men and we were allowed to go abroad and dress American wounded. My partner and I were separated and I found myself alone. Perhaps an hour after my capture, while still caring for wounded, I came on to an old wine cellar, or remains of one; as they usually offered shelter for men in an attack. I went in and I must say my eyes met a horrible sight: There I found Russell still alive, but I soon found out that he would not live long as he was hit in several places and his worst wound was a hole in the left lung, where a piece of the grenade had pierced his lung, leaving a ragged hole, from which he was breathing. I knew there was no hopes for him, but bandaged him up the best I could. He asked me about the number of dead Germans outside, and when I told him there were a dozen or more, he smiled and said: – “That’s good.” He then seemed to lose consciousness and I don’t doubt but that he died in a very short time. . .
I am very sorry your nephew had to die, but of one thing you can be proud, he died like a man when he was fighting. At the beginning of the raid, there were probably fifteen in cellar. They had fought to a finish; the cellar had only one opening and they were at a disadvantage, for they could only fire through that opening, but evidently stuck to it gamely, as there were a number of dead Germans around cellar; it was plain to be seen that the Germans had got the cellar located and threw hand grenades into the cellar. The Americans had been cut to pieces by the grenades and parts of them were strung about the cellar, but I saw a motion in rear of cellar, and going there found Russell as I have stated.
Mr. Scott, whose identity is not clear, also wrote a letter to Frank and Jesse Eagley, brother-and-sister cousins of Russell’s who had raised him from age 10. That letter has been lost, but contained more information about Mr. Scott’s encounter with Russell. Although Russell died on August 27, 1918, it wasn’t until April of 1921 that his body departed Antwerp, Belgium, on the Wheaton and he was buried in Fairview Cemetery, next to his mother.
Why did it take three years to return Russell’s body to his home? Apparently, the United States entered the war without a clear plan of how to process fallen soldiers. Grieving families in the United States grew frustrated and demanded the return of their loved ones’ remains. The job of sorting out and transporting the dead took until the end of 1921, by which time, the American military had shipped close to 46,000 bodies back to the United States.
The American Survivor: Lee James Silverthorn
As mentioned earlier, my grandfather’s brother, Lee, also went to France to fight and was injured by mustard gas a month before Russell died. What happened to Lee Silverthorn? After he recovered from his injury, he returned to service. The exact date that he rejoined Company G is not known, but it was likely after the Tragedy at Fismette. Lee was discharged from the army in April of 1919, five months after the war ended. He found a career in the insurance business, married, had a son, and died in Minnesota at the age of 64.
Although Lee had been injured in the war, he outlived my grandfather, Burton Silverthorn, who did not serve at all. Burton was the youngest brother, two years younger than Lee. My uncle, Daniel Silverthorn, remembers seeing letters that Russell wrote home, and one stated, “Burton is to stay home. Lee and I will handle it.” If Burton had not heeded this directive, I might not be here today.
The Grandparents: Burton and Catherine
In September of 1921, a few months after Russell’s body returned home, Catherine Wäschle sailed on the Bayern from Germany to live with her aunt in Erie, Pennsylvania. Catherine had lost her fiancé and her brother, Josef, in the war. In Erie, she found a job operating a loom in a silk factory, and the other workers showed prejudice toward her because of her nationality. One even sabotaged her loom multiple times, severely affecting her productivity, until he was caught and disciplined. While working at the factory, Catherine met my grandfather, Burton Silverthorn, and they married in 1924.
In World War I, my grandfather’s brother, Russell Silverthorn, died fighting for America. My grandmother’s brother, Josef Wäschle, died fighting for Germany. Many of us have ancestors who served on opposing sides of conflict. This provides an interesting perspective on the concept of “enemy.” Throughout history, war has been orchestrated by those far from the trenches, as in the case of General DeGoutte, whose decision wasted many young lives in Fismette.
Now, as technology advances, the world grows smaller every minute, and discoveries like mine become more commonplace. Perhaps the citizens of our planet will one day see each other as diverse members of a global community and resolve their differences without sacrificing humanity.