Ralph Meyer and buddies, Undated. [AR.1997.001(002)] Susette Meyer Papers.
The U. S. entered WWI in April 1917 after staying out for nearly three years. Of the 4 million Americans that eventually became a part of the military effort, almost 200, 000 men and approximately 450 women were from Texas –roughly 4% of the Texas population at the time*. Consequently, it would have been common in many Texas homes to have a picture on display of someone in the military. So many took on new roles in the military effort that the impact was felt across the state. Austin was no different. Over 5000 Texans died, with at least 30 or more from Austin killed fighting in France or dying in the flu epidemic that swept through military training camps.
Yet, hidden behind the staggering statistics and complicated politics of the First World War are the lives and deaths of individuals, most of them quite young, and most of them imagining something far different for their future besides war. Those lives tend to be lumped together into numbers that fail to account for the more significant fact that each one of them had a name, a family, friends and a community from which they drew a personal sense of what mattered. Whether the war itself mattered to them is difficult to know. But at the same time, just as it would be for any of us, it was their relationships which distinguished who they were and why they went.
By now, most of those proud, young faces have disappeared from the mantelpiece, but a few ended up in this archive on the chance that someone will come looking, hoping to see them again. Such is the value of archives – keeping forgotten faces and forgotten stories safe until another seeks to know the people and events that made their world.
The nature of the historical record is such that it is always fragmentary. There are holes in our knowledge of what happened that no amount of statistics can fill. When it comes to the experiences of individuals, we are left to span those spaces with interpretation and even imagination. Even so, a few individual faces, along with a few facts about them, can begin to frame our own sense of what happened one hundred years ago. When set into the broader context of a worldwide conflict that took 16 million lives and wounded our world to a depth historians are still trying to calculate, the faces in this exhibit are an opportunity to behold a war fought by persons, individual citizens, who bore the immense burden of it all. Some were ruined by the war completely. Others lived with the memory of it into old age. And while most of their individual stories have been forgotten, we can still ask what the war made of them even as we ask that of ourselves. This exhibit hopes that addressing the loss of so many individual stories might be a source for meaningful reflection on their war, the Great War, great if only because it remains our war as well.
Click on the thumbnails below to see some sample images from the exhibit.