PROVO — The events that transpired in the last days of World War I were still vivid in Calvin S. Smith’s memory 17 years later.
Smith, the son of then-President Joseph F. Smith and one of three Latter-day Saint chaplains that served in The Great War, recalled what he saw and heard on Nov. 11, 1918, in an article for the Deseret News published Nov. 11, 1935.
In the article, Calvin Smith wrote about being with the 3rd Battalion of the 362nd Infantry in a town called Oudenaarde, Belgium. He and other soldiers were walking through the town when they met a French soldier mounted on a horse.
“He was unsteady in the saddle as though he had been drinking,” Smith wrote. “As he passed us he waved his hand and called out to us ‘Le guerre est finie!’ (‘The war is over!’) and rushed on.”
A few minutes later, a group of officers wearing “service hats” instructed the soldiers to do the same. “You can wear your service cap now. The war is over,” a Maj. Stephens told the group.
While absorbing the news, Smith was assigned to see to the burial of an American soldier recently killed in action, which he did.
“In this manner we learned of the armistice,” Smith wrote. “Men were skeptical about an armistice. Rumor and hearsay had been so bounteous that men could not believe. The news was too good to be true.”
Smith’s wartime service is one of many interesting Latter-day Saint connections to World War I that people can learn more about while attending the Saints at War Conference at Brigham Young University on Saturday, Nov. 10, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Robert C. Freeman, director of the Saints at War project and a professor at BYU, said this conference is for everyone, especially veterans and their families.
“We want those who are interested in military history and service to God and country to come,” Freeman said. “I never served in the military, but I have such great admiration for those who have. It’s just a way for us all to show we haven’t forgotten them or the price they paid. It’s a way to express gratitude for freedom and to honor the sacrifice of those who have gone before us and who guard our liberties today.”
The conference will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Great War and honor the military service of all members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Elder Bruce A. Carlson, an emeritus general authority and retired four-star general in the Air Force, will be the keynote speaker at the event, which will be held in the BYU Conference Center. Other speakers include Kenneth Alford, Sherman Fleek and Andrew Skinner.
After a lunch break, a final session will feature a premiere screening of a new documentary, “Saints at War: World War I.”
In timing with the conference, a new book titled, “Saints at War: World War I,” co-authored by Freeman and Skinner, was released this fall. The volume documents the accounts of Latter-day Saint soldiers who served in the war and included some never-before-published photos.
Freeman and Skinner worked together on the book for seven years. One motivating factor was knowing Skinner’s father served in World War I, a reminder that the Great War was not that long ago, Freeman said.
“Any competent historian will tell you that some of the current world struggles of today have roots in that period. So it’s important to understand the conflict and the times that those soldiers and civilians lived through. It’s still relevant today,” Freeman said. “I sometimes picture in my mind some veteran who has long since passed from mortality and from whatever war whispering from beyond the veil ‘thanks for remembering us.’ That’s what we do.”
The book gives many facts about the church and its connections to the war.
Approximately 25,000 Latter-day Saints served in the American forces during World War I, and of that number, about 700 perished.
Among those who served were several future general authorities, including Hugh B. Brown, William J. Critchlow, Delbert L. Stapley and S. Dilworth Young.
The book has a chapter featuring glimpses of the home front and the journal of James E. Talmage, who served in the Quorum of Twelve Apostles.
In addition to Calvin Smith, B.H. Roberts, another general authority, and Herbert B. Maw served as chaplains.
Another Latter-day Saint, Pvt. Thomas C. Neibaur, of Sugar City, Idaho, became the first church member to be awarded the Medal of Honor. His unit, the Rainbow Division, faced some of the most brutal fighting of the war in France.
It’s estimated that several hundred German Saints served their country in the war and about 75 died. Other countries, including Canada, New Zealand and Australia, also had Latter-day Saints in their ranks.
“World War I was a terrible conflict. Those who fought abroad and their families who endured it on the home front experienced hard things,” Freeman said. “They fought for freedom and they deserve to be remembered. They have an amazing legacy — they were in fact another ‘Greatest Generation.’ That’s who we are honoring.”
To learn more or register for the conference, visit saintsatwar.com or call 801-422-8925.
If you go …
What: Saints at War Conference — the Great War: World War I
When: Saturday, Nov. 10, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
Where: Brigham Young University, Conference Center, Provo
Note: To register, saintsatwar.com or call 801-422-8925