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In the Shadow of Giants: 100 Years After World War One

11-11-2018

COMMENTARY
 

"And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death."  

- Revelation 12:11

On this day 100 years ago, World War One, bringing to a conclusion the terrible conflict that cost millions of lives.  What we call Veteran's Day originally was called Armistice Day, which marked the conclusion of the First World War on November 11, 1918.  In poetic fashion, the so-called "war to end all wars" concluded on the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month of 1918.  And, in those final hours of combat, the Allies would suffer 11,000 casualties.  The enormity of the suffering eclipsed the poetic ending of this cataclysmic war.  
 
The last American to fall was Private Henry Gunther, a banker from Baltimore, Maryland who was killed at 10:59 am; one minute before the guns fell silent.  Although Gunter's commander received word that the war was ending at 11:00 am, his orders were to continue the attack until the bitter end.  So many fought, and as Private Henry Gunter, gave their all to protect and defend this nation from its enemies.  Millions of American men answered the call to arms in 1917 and 1918.  These were average and common people not unlike you and me.  

Among those that answered the call to arms was Major James Rieger, a lawyer from Kirksville, Missouri.  While training in the states before deploying to Europe, Rieger realized that the men in his unit were deficient in Christian education and this led him to establish a popular Sunday school program attended by hundreds of soldiers.  Rieger's commanding general was against this and thought that Rieger's Christian faith made him weak and said that he was "altogether useless."  The general set about to kick Rieger out of the Army.  Thankfully the general's reasons were baseless and he remained in the Army.

Major James E. Rieger

One hundred years ago, the "altogether useless" Rieger would be hailed by the French as the Hero of the Argonne after he valiantly led the attack to take Vauquois Hill against stalwart German defenders, and he went on to liberate two French Villages.  For his bravery, Rieger was awarded America's second highest award, the Distinguished Service Cross.  At the same time, the general that tried to fire Rieger out of the army for being "too Christian" was relieved for incompetence.  I Corinthians 1:27 says that…"God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty."  It is people like Rieger, who are considered weak and foolish by the world's standards, who rise in the midst of the crisis to change the course of history. 

Such was the case during the American Civil War.  On July 2, 1863, it seemed that the Confederate Army under Robert E. Lee would win at the Battle of Gettysburg during the bloody Civil War and thereby result in a divided nation.  All the Confederate Army needed to do was to drive the 20th Maine Regiment off of a hill called Little Round Top.  Commanding the men from Maine was Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.  Throughout most of his life, Chamberlain struggled with a severe stuttering problem that made him the laughingstock of the neighborhood when he was young.  Chamberlain was told that he was stupid and would never amount to anything.  Yet, this quiet, insecure man from Maine held the future of this nation in his hands.  Chamberlain and his men held against the Confederate torrent on that one day at Gettysburg and when out of ammunition, he led a bayonet attack to drive the enemy back, winning the battle and saving his nation.  Every person on the face of the earth was touched by that moment in time and we have a United States today thanks to that quiet, insecure man from Maine who was considered foolish and weak in the eyes of the world.  

The legacy of other Christian men in the First World War echoes across the generations to us today.  And then, of course, we have the amazing legacy of Alvin C. York.  Although raised in a Christian home, Alvin's life turned upside down in 1911 after his father died.  The burden of taking care of his widowed mother, providing for his siblings and running the farm proved too much.  Alvin soon found himself spending the weekends at dangerous bars on the Kentucky border of Tennessee called Blind Tigers.  Here, Alvin's life spun out of control and he spent his weekend's drunk, cussing, gambling, fighting and chasing girls.   More than once Alvin heard that he was a good for nothing drunk and would never amount to anything.

Alvin York

But all that changed on January 1st, 1915, when Alvin recommitted his life to the Lord.  On that day, Alvin began to develop his Character muscle.  He turned his back on the temptations and endeavored each day do the right thing; to honor God and be a good witness to his neighbors.  Alvin went from "a good for nothing drunk" to a leader in his church and an inspiration to those that knew him.  However, York was drafted into the Army in 1917 and ended up fighting in the Argonne Forest not far from Major Rieger.  

On October 8, 1918, Alvin's unit, the 82nd Division, was ordered to drive the Germans out of the Argonne Forest.  The Americans attacked but were stopped by blistering German rifle, machinegun and artillery fires.  All hope was lost until Alvin York rose to the occasion.  He valiantly charged a German machinegun, fought off a German bayonet attack, killed 25 enemy soldiers and captured another 132.  This forced the German Army to retreat from the Argonne Forest, an area they had occupied for four long years.  This is the difference one person can make.

Likewise, the legacy of North Dakota farmer Private Nels Wold, cries out to us a century later.  As the Americans endeavored to break the German line in the Meuse-Argonne Region of France in 1918, a group of soldiers advanced.  These were abruptly stopped by a German machinegun.  Private Nels Wold volunteered to single-handedly assault the enemy position.  Nels valiantly dashed forward and eliminated the machinegun to enable the advance to continue.  On four different occasions, this heroic North Dakota farmer selflessly risked his life to attack dug in enemy machineguns.  And, each time, he succeeded.

American crewed French Renault Tanks
Nels was the son of Norwegian immigrants, whose Christian witness was matched by his selflessness on the battlefield.  Sadly, Private Wold was killed when he single-handedly attacked a fifth German machinegun.  Nels last words were spoken to Corporal Julius Vonderlieth, to whom he said, "pray for me… and write my folks and tell them I love them."  Corporal Vonderlieth wrote the following letter to Nels mother that captured the legacy that he left behind;  

"My dear Mrs. Wold, I am sure the death of your dear son Nels was a shock to you all. I am sure you must feel very badly. However, you are not alone for all his pals in the Army miss him and feel the loss of a friend and true comrade. I was with Nels when he died and his last words were of you and his loved ones. He requested that I write you and say that he truly loved you all and was ready to go. While we all miss him, we must not grieve, for he died for a noble cause. It was the Lord’s will that he be taken out of this world of sorrow into the heavenly realms above. In this hour of your sorrow, I send you my sympathy and a wish that your future days may be bright and happy ones. 
Very sincerely J.E. Vonderlieth"

The legacy of Rieger, Chamberlain, Nels Wold and York echoes across the generations to us today.  It only takes one man, or one woman, to change the course of history.  This can be you. God forbid that you were told by someone, maybe even a parent that "you will never amount to anything."  This is a lie from the pit of hell. Rieger was told this and look at what he did.  What about Chamberlain, Nels Wold, and York?  

How exactly do we make a difference?  This begins by daily doing the right thing… choosing to do what is good and right… it is what I call building your character muscle.  The Civil War hero Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain said of this:

"We know not of the future and cannot plan for it much. But we can hold our spirits and our bodies so pure and high, we may cherish such thoughts and such ideals, and dream such dreams of lofty purpose, that we can determine and know what manner of men or women we will be whenever the hour strikes that calls us to noble action. This predestination God has given us in charge.  No man becomes suddenly different from his habit and cherished thought."

By choosing daily to honor God with your life and please Him with your decisions, one builds their "character muscle."This is how we change the course of history… by daily choosing to do the right thing.  As Chamberlain said, by making it a habit to do the right thing… when that moment comes that calls you to noble action… you will know what to do.  

Jesus said in the Gospel of John Chapter 15. "Greater love hath no one than this; he lay down his life for his friends."  Private Henry Gunther did this on the last minute of the war in 1918, as so many others in the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War. World War One, World War Two, Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan and so many other places around the world.  The sacrifices and remarkable heroism of millions of Americans echoes across the generations to us today.  They cry out to us as a silent witness to rise up and push back the forces of darkness.

The World War One generation has sadly passed into eternity.  Yet, their legacy calls out to us to fight the good fight and not faint in the face of adversity.  You may be the next hero that saves this land in its hour of need… It all starts with daily choosing to do the right thing.  Seek what is good, noble, right and just… build your character muscle… honor God with your life and you might just change the course of history.  Indeed - your life matters… and just like Rieger, Wold, Chamberlain, and York… what you do in life echoes across the generations and into eternity. 

Colonel Douglas Mastriano's book, "Thunder in the Argonne" tells the story of America's greatest battle and recounts the legacy of men like York, Rieger and others who gave their all in 1918.

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