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Veterans

By Daniel Hubbard | November 11, 2012

Today we mark the anniversary of the end of The Great War, also known as The War to End All Wars. Before the the 1940s, it was The World War. Today we think about veterans. We think about the men and women, living and dead who served their country.

As genealogists, we should be quicker than most to realize that the definition of “their country” is not so obvious. Nations are host to people from elsewhere. Nations are host to the descendents of people from elsewhere. Not all veterans in our past held the same allegiances as we do.

When my children were slightly younger, they came home early each November with a sheet that was to be filled in with the names of any veterans in the family, past or present. Every year I filled in the names of my ancestors from various colonial wars, the Massachusetts Militia from the 1770′s, the Ohio Militia from 1813 and the Civil War. I also included my ancestor who fought in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the name of the British Empire. I also included their most recent veteran ancestor to fight, my wife’s grandfather, who did his fighting in the German trenches during The Great War. Those last two men probably are not what people have in mind when they hand out that sheet, but they are no less real. They are no less a part of my children’s past. Had my wife’s grandfather not been wounded, had my grandfather been scheduled to ship out to France before the end of November 1918, the two halves of our family might have met seventy some years earlier and under far less favorable circumstances.

A veteran of a far away place and time buried not so far away.

This week I visited a grave, purely for historical reasons, and it wasn’t until afterwards that I realized that I had almost visited on Veterans Day. I had been told the name of the cemetery and the shape of the stone and that the man buried there would be Alsatian. That is, a man whose identity might be not quite French and not quite German. Eventually I found him. A man with a name that appeared German but his birthplace, carved right into the stone, was France. He was born in 1792 and he was a veteran, not of an American army but of Napoleon’s army. I wonder if anyone ever marks his grave with the French tricolor.

There are veterans in our pasts. In America their uniforms were often blue and sometimes gray. Yet, those uniforms might also have been red or their helmets might have had a shape that set them apart from doughboys and G.I.s, but they are still ours. Today as genealogists we should think about our ancestral veterans from “here” but also our veterans from “there.”

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