Armistice Signed & My Grandfather Died – 99 years ago

By Carol / November 7, 2017 /

Ninety-nine years ago, on November 11, 1918, the Allies and Germany signed the Armistice to end fighting in the First World War. On that same day, my grandfather Carl died. My grandfather did not, however, die in battle.

Carl Jensen signed up for service, as all American men did when America entered the war that had already been raging for more than three years. According to his Certificate of Discharge From Military Service, Carl received a deferment because he was ‘a married man with a wife and child dependent upon his labor for support.’ The draft board may also have taken into consideration that Carl farmed, an occupation vital to the military cause.

Carl and Elizabeth Jensen married December 14, 1914.

How he greeted the news of his deferment, we don’t know. I imagine his wife Libby was relieved. They had a two-year-old daughter, and Libby was pregnant with another child.

So, war didn’t kill him. It was the other scourge sweeping the nation at the same time – the Spanish Flu – that took his life.

Both the war and the influenza pandemic took shocking tolls. Military and civilian casualties in World War I totaled more than 41 million – 18 million deaths and 23 million wounded. The 1918 flu pandemic infected 500 million people around the world – a fifth of the world’s population – causing the deaths of 50 to 100 million. Ten times as many Americans died of influenza as died in the world war. (Stanford)

The influenza struck hard at people like my grandfather, those between the ages of 20 and 40. It’s estimated that 43,000 American servicemen died of influenza. Movement of troops across the globe undoubtedly contributed to spread of the disease.

Carl and his daughter Ruby. This picture inspired a scene in Go Away Home.

A local Iowa newspaper carried the banner front page headline, “Germany Signs Armistice.” On the bottom of the same page, is the headline, “Carl Jensen Dead.”

No wonder, the connection between these two events stuck in my head as a child. The war. The influenza. The grandfather I would never know. Together, they inspired my novel Go Away Home. While the story was inspired by my maternal grandparents, it’s entirely fiction. Though my grandmother lived until I was in my 20s, I never asked her a single question about Carl or their lives together. Pictures like this one as well as anecdotes my mother passed along, gave birth to the novel.

As we approach the centenary of the Armistice, I honor my grandfather and all who died in that great conflict and the flu pandemic that swept the world at the same time.

What are your ties to world-shaping events? Please take a moment and share a story.

NOTE: The original post was edited after a careful reader pointed out that the Armistice was signed in 1918. Showing once again how important it is to check your research. Mea culpa.


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  1. Merril Smith on November 8, 2017 at 5:27 am

    It is sad how many died in the flu epidemic. I know Philadelphia was closed down, and bodies had to be collected–but as far as I know, none of my relatives was affected. (Something to look into.) I wish it was something I had thought of to ask my grandfathers about when they were still alive.

    My mother’s father was in the navy during WWI, but he did not see action. He had recently arrived in Philadelphia from Russia. I believe he received his naturalization papers as a result of agreeing to serve, as was done at the time.

    Your grandfather looks so happy in the photo with Ruby.

    • Carol on November 8, 2017 at 10:16 am

      The larger cities were so hard hit. I’ve read that caskets were delivered to neighborhoods and left in piles knowing someone would need one soon. Children played on those piles of caskets.

      That picture of my grandfather and my mother is one of my favorites. My mother said, “When I look at this picture, I know he loved me.”

  2. Paulette Mahurin on November 8, 2017 at 7:02 am

    Those are shocking tolls and I hope to God that we don’t head down that path again with war and a resistance flu pandemic. The photos are priceless, your grandparents such a handsome couple and he looks so lovingly happy in that photo with Ruby. The writing beautiful and it’s lovely to have a little backstory to your marvelous novel Go Away Home.

    • Carol on November 8, 2017 at 10:09 am

      The numbers are shocking. This past week I listened to an interview on NPR about the possibility of another flu pandemic. Even with our improved knowledge of how the flu spreads and access to vaccines, the experts say the possibility is very real. War, of course, appears to be always with us.

  3. Elfrieda Neufeld Schroeder on November 8, 2017 at 11:06 am

    I never met my grandfather either. Of Mennonite descent, his family belonged to the Kroeger Clock Makers in Ukraine. He became a landowner through marriage to a woman who had no male siblings to inherit the land. That was his demise. When the Communists swept into the country landowners needed to be “disowned”. The Stalin dictatorship did this simply by accusing them of some crime they had not committed, taking them to the local prison and from there they went to Siberia. They came at midnight, in a black car, and gave him 20 minutes to say good-bye to his wife and five children. My mother was 14 years old, the only daughter. She loved her father intensely. She never saw or heard from him again. She was always afraid when she saw open closet doors at night.

    • Carol on November 8, 2017 at 3:29 pm

      Your family history is fascinating, Elfrieda. I’m so eager to read your memoir. Smithsonian magazine includes an extensive article on the Russian revolution in this month’s issue. You might find it interesting. Recently, I read “A Gentleman in Moscow,” an excellent novel by Amor Towles that is the story of a poet who was lucky to be imprisoned in a hotel during and after the revolution rather than sent to Siberia. Thought-provoking look at being imprisoned, friendship, and Russian history.

  4. Billie Wade on November 8, 2017 at 7:08 pm

    Such staggering statistics, and the frightening possibility both war and a pandemic could again sweep through the world. I never knew either of my grandfathers, and I have often wondered who they were, what their lives may have been like, and how they saw the world. Thank you, Carol, for your poignant and inspiring post.

    • Carol on November 9, 2017 at 9:52 am

      The possibilities are sobering.

      Those unasked questions become the stuff of fiction, don’t they?

  5. Nan Johnson on November 9, 2017 at 9:39 am

    Wonderful article, Carol. I was struck by your comment “Though my grandmother lived until I was in my 20s, I never asked her a single question about Carl or their lives together.” I think that is true of many of us; when I was young, I didn’t ask the questions I’m curious about now, either. The questions didn’t occur to me until I’d lived through some years myself. The photo of Carl and Ruby is a real treasure.

    • Carol on November 9, 2017 at 10:00 am

      It appears most of us need to have life experience before we acquire enough wisdom to ask questions. Since I was lucky to have both my parents for many years, I did my best to ask them questions, but now I have more questions. Deeper questions. More important questions.

      A workshop leader once challenged me to mentally put myself in a place where that person and I might have been and ask questions. At the time, I didn’t understand how that could work. Years later, I tried it and received a satisfying (and I believe accurate) answer from my mother. But I know my parents often surprised me, so I don’t know which questions might elicit totally unexpected answers. More of life’s puzzles.

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