For Centennial of World War I’s End, New Documentary Tells One Soldier’s Story (Video)

This photo provided by National World War I Museum and Memorial and dated Nov. 11, 1918 shows celebrations or armistice by Company A, 353rd Regiment Infantry, 89th Div., at church steps which they reached at 11:00am, in Stenay, Meuse region, eastern France. Photo: National World War I Museum and Memorial via AP

WASHINGTON, DC – This year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. One major question remains: How do we commemorate all those who lost their lives in the “war to end all wars.” More than 16 million people fell on the battlefields in the world’s first truly global conflict in human history, and most died young, anonymous, and under terrible conditions on foreign soil.

In an effort to show the world in miniature, like a grain of sand, and to tell the “sad and terrifying story” of a young American soldier embodying the tragedy of millions of people during the First World War, three Americans in their 80s, filmmakers and longtime friends Edward Nef, Douglas Hartley, and William Flanders, produced the documentary film WWI: An American Martyr.

A WWI commemoration ceremony was held in Washington, DC by Harvard University on May 23, just a few days before Memorial Day, at which the documentary was screened. Filmmakers Nef and Hartley are both Harvard grads, Class of 1955. Flanders is a Yale grad, Class of 1955, and also narrates the film.

The documentary tells the story of Charles Fletcher Hartley, uncle of Douglas Hartley, whom he never knew. Charles, whose father was English and mother was American, grew up in the United States and moved with his family to England at the age of 16 in 1913, a year before the First World War broke out. He graduated from the Harrow School in 1916, was admitted to Cambridge University, and then joined the British Royal Infantry Regiment.

In April 1917, the United States declared war against the Axis forces, and Charles was charged with training American artillery soldiers before the mass deployment of U.S. troops in France. However, he followed his regiment to fight in Cambrai in northern France in November of that same year, where he was injured in the head by shrapnel and died a month later.

“Since I was a child, I wanted to find my uncle’s monument erected by my grandfather after the war in an area outside Cambrai, the Fontaine-Notre-Dame,” said Hartley, a former U.S. Department of State official.

“The documentary showing the personal story of a man who lost his life in the war helps the public to get a detailed picture of this terrible war 100 years ago,” explains George Petasis, Assistant Dean for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer at Georgetown University.

The filming lasted for 16 months. Nef and Hartley visited many battlefields and cemeteries in Belgium and France. They found the spot where Charles was killed and the monument that had been erected on a French farmer’s property.

“The view was so awesome and tragic. Seeing countless rows of tombstones, several without names. So much sadness not only from the tombstones but also from the visitors there,” Nef and Hartley said, highlighting the contrast between the beautiful bucolic landscape and the cemetery.

As they explained, the only thing that could destroy this idyllic image was the invasion of the deadly, man-made war machines: the tanks that destroyed everything, crushing fields and forests, soldiers drenching the earth with their blood, bombers that leave behind havoc – and all this for what reason, they wondered.

More than four million American families sent their children to serve in the armed forces during World War I, including 116,516 lives lost in battle and due to illnesses, while 200,000 were injured, according to figures from the United States World War One Centennial Commission.

“These young people who died in World War I, a war that changed the whole world but failed to stop all the other wars, should never be forgotten,” said Neff and Hartley.

Material from the ANA-MPA was used in this report.