The most Awarded Soldier in the History of the World War 1

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Updated: Apr 15, 2022
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The most Awarded Soldier in the History of the World War 1 essay

On October 8, 1918, Sergeant Alvin York single-handedly fought off a rain of bullets from thirty-five German machine guns, along with a large battalion of soldiers; defeating them and capturing 129 soldiers. This remarkable war triumph amazed everyone around him, he earned several merit awards and became one of the most decorated and well-known soldiers in World War I history. However, he faced many tragic events leading up to that point, including being forced to fight and kill in that bloody war in the first place against his will, and having to grieve the loss of all of his friends that were killed right in front of his eyes.

Alvin Cullum York was born on December 13, 1887 in Pall Mall, Tennessee, a little town in an impoverished rural area in the Cumberland Valley, near the Tennessee-Kentucky border. York was the third of the eleven children born of farmers Mary Brooks and William York. They were kind and hardworking individuals who provided a stable and fine life for their children. York and his family lived in a one room cabin, and each child was responsible for helping to keep the farm running smoothly. ‘I begun to work almost as soon as I could walk,’ York recalled in His Own Life Story and War Diary. ‘At first I would help Mother around the house, carrying water, getting a little stovewood, and carrying and nursing the other children to keep them from yelling around after Mother while she was trying to get a bite of dinner for us all. I would go out to the field with Father before I was six years old.’ Even though Alvin York did not have much formal schooling, having been taken out of school after the third grade, he acquired many important survival skills that proved useful in his future military experiences. For example, he learned to hunt and shoot from going on outings with his father, William, a very skilled, regionally well-known marksman.

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From this, York also ended up becoming especially good at wielding rifles and pistols. As a bonus, these hunting trips resulted in giving York a strong relationship with his father, which was quite difficult with having so many other kids to pay attention to. Later on, when York’s father died in 1911, he had to become the main provider to his family, his mother and young siblings, as the two oldest sons had just been married and moved away to start their own families. York spent his days working on the farm as a day laborer, but the pressures of running the household got to him, and he starting partaking in wild and self-destructive activities. He spent most of his time at illicit moonshine bars where big fights often brewed, most of which he joined. Also, he started gambling frequently, wasting all of his limited earnings from his family farm. York was even caught in legal issues due to his dangerous drunken endeavours. In his late twenties, York fell in love with a pretty young woman named Gracie Loretta Williams, who lived on a nearby farm. Every now and again, the two would get to see each other while doing their chores on their respective farms; York enjoyed every minute that he spent with her.

However, they had do this covertly due to Williams’ father objecting for his daughter to be near this wild man with bad drinking habits. But, Gracie Williams’ family were devout Christians, so York started attending church just so he could start seeing her openly. As the years went on, York attended many religious revival meetings with Williams, and they started to become more genuine and meaningful to him. On New Year’s Day of 1915, York came to a large realization that would change his life forever. As York spent more time in church, he started to examine his own faith and how he was as a person, looking back on his troublesome past and wanting to change it. York changed his life around. He became an active member of the Church of Christ in Christian Union, a small religious sect with strict prohibitions on war, violence, drinking, dancing, and even movies, putting an end to his terrible habits and behaviors. Right before the United States joined World War I, York had been given one of the best promises in his life. He describes the experience as “One summer afternoon I got my old squirrel gun and went down the lane as usual and met Gracie. I disremember what we talked about or how it happened, but I know we come to an understanding. I walked back home the happiest man that ever could be. I was kinder drunk with happiness. I had Gracie’s promise that she would marry me.” Unfortunately, war conflicted their relationship and York had to leave her for a few years.

World War I lasted from 1914-1918; it started when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip. It was a war of carnage and destruction between Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire (the central powers) and Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, Japan, and the United States (the allied powers). Tensions had been brewing in Europe already. Worried that Austria-Hungary was getting ready for war, the government of Serbia sent out the Serbian army, and wanted urgent help from Russia. Then, on July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. In the span of a week, Russia, Belgium, France, Great Britain, and Serbia lined up face to face with Austria-Hungary and Germany, officially beginning World War I. During the outbreaks of war during 1914, President Woodrow Wilson prefered to keep the United States neutral, and not at all involved with the war. They still continued in commerce and shipping with European countries on both sides. Being neutral, however, was hard, with German submarines showing aggression towards the neutral American ships, some with passengers. In 1915, Germany declared that the waters surrounding the British Isles were a war zone, which gave the German U-Boats a reason to start sinking some commercial and passenger ships, some being from the United States.

Later on, after America was very fed up with the situation, Congress ended up passing a $250 million arms appropriations bill to make the United States ready for war. After Germany sank four more United States merchant ships in just one month, President Wilson appeared before Congress and called for a declaration of war against Germany on April 2, 1917. It was a very bloody and violent war; there were about 13 million casualties there from both sides due to brutal trench warfare, gas attacks, artillery bombardments, and charges across no-man’s land. Finally, as the war came to a close, the Paris Peace Conference was held in 1919. Allied leaders stated their ideas and talked about ways to create a safe after-war world that wouldn’t have anymore violence or destruction; World War I was said to be “the war to end all wars.” The treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, thus ending War War I. Afterwards, Germany faced war guilt, big reparations, and anger from being denied the privilege of joining the League of Nations. They felt cheated by signing that treaty, as if they had been tricked. As years went on, Germany built its resentment of the Treaty of Versailles and its authors, which was counted as one of the many causes of World War II in 1939.

In 1917, World War I was starting to get even more serious in Europe around the time of York’s conversion to Christianity, and the United States had just joined the allied forces to fight in the war. Against his wishes, he was soon drafted into the military to go fight with the American military in Europe. York tried to decline, citing his religious opposition to fighting and war, but the authorities denied him conscientious objection, due to his sect not having enough soldiers. He faced the great tragedy of having to leave his family and the love of his life right after she said that she would marry him. Also, he had to leave right after his conversion to Christianity, when he started to especially hate war and fighting. In His Own Life Story and War Diary, York states, “I wasn’t unpatriotic or disloyal or anything like that. I knowed my people for generations back had always fought for their country. I knowed we were all good Americans in the mountains, but that-there World War seemed such a long way off.” He was summoned to military service in November of 1917, and he reluctantly fulfilled his duty. York was thirty years old when he took a train at Oneida to Camp Gordon in Georgia to train for war; he was put into the 82nd Infantry Division as a private. Camp Gordon was only less than forty miles from his home, but it was the farthest away from home that he had ever been in his life.

Throughout the training period, York contemplated his doubts and strong views against warfare. He ended up voicing his concerns to his commanding officers, who tried to convince him that the military efforts in Europe were part of a noble and good cause, and York just had to accept it. When the time came that York had to accompany his division to France in the May of 1918, he believed that the conflict awaiting him was morally acceptable. The 82nd Infantry Division’s overall goal was to provide support for the already existing armies battling German troops in France. The warfare had weakened British and French reserves, and German leaders were planning to make their final move of pushing along the Western Front. But, United States soldiers stopped them in their tracks, giving their side another fighting chance. York and his fellow division soldiers imbedded with British troops for a while afterward, then were sent to the Lorraine district of northeastern France in June, already having a few triumphs in war. York ended up spending a few weeks there in the trenches, with nothing really going on before he and his division joined some other units of the American Expeditionary Forces in the Allied St. Mihiel initiative along the Western Front. Alvin York was a corporal now, leading a small group of his own. Soon after, he led a successful surprise attack that captured German soldiers and supplies as well. The overall push against those German forces made them retreat, paving an opening for the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive was where Sergeant York really showed his true skill. On October 8, 1918, York was patrolling with seventeen other men, when they accidentally ran into a German squad while trying to sneak behind the lines of a German machine gun nest, making a huge fight break out. They were being assaulted by a bank of thirty-five lethal German machine guns; several of the allied soldiers were gunned down and killed. In His Own Life Story and War Diary, York states how having many of his men dying when he states, “Well now was we went on fighting our way through the thick forest of the Argonne woods we could hear the cryes of our boys who were getting shot and oh my we had to sleep by the dead and with the dead. […] Still losing them as you know that you cant fight in war without losing men and the Germans was shelling us awfull with big shells also gas and the boys laying there that they couldn’t burry.” York instinctively knew that he had to act quickly to stop further damage among his men and the allied forces in general. As well as large machine guns, there were also German soldiers with bayonets and their own guns. Suddenly, York noticed that the gunners routinely peaked their heads up from their guns briefly in order to aim at the American troops and not their own, which gave Sergeant York the ingenious idea to compare the motions of the German soldiers to the turkeys that he had used to hunt near his farm. With his excellent marksmanship with the rifle, he plucked off soldiers one by one as they popped their heads up to look every now and again.

Almost every opening that he had, York tried to persuade the Germans to surrender so he wouldn’t have to kill any more. There are a few different translations of why the German officers called for surrender. One says that the German officers didn’t call for a surrender until they saw York single-handedly take down and incapacitate, but not kill, six Germans charging at him with bayonets. Another, however, says that the Germans thought that they were being attacked by a much larger force, so the commander surrendered his army of roughly ninety soldiers. The last one says that a German lieutenant was grieved by the loss of his fellow officer, blowing his whistle and ordering the men of his battalion to surrender. York reported to his commanding officer that he “never got a scratch” during that battle, which was quite a triumph for him and the allied forces, gaining them a large advantage over the other side. Sergeant York and the rest of his squad then rounded up the remaining German soldiers, and marched them back to the allied lines. By the time they got there, York and his squad had captured 129 German soldiers, including three officers. However, York still had to face the tragedy and pain of being forced to kill some of those German soldiers, even though it was his life and country, or theirs.

Alvin York’s actions that day amazed everyone around him. He was quickly promoted to the rank of Sergeant by the army, and, after the war, had the honor of receiving the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor, the Medaille Militaire and Croix de Guerre by France, and the Croce de Guerra by Italy. He finally returned from his duty in World War I in May of 1919, and was surprised to find himself as famous as a celebrity. Soon after his return, The Saturday Evening Post published a story on his death-defying experiences in war, which made him a household name. The United States government even invited him to visit Washington, D.C. York was quite exhausted and was happy to settle back into his home in Tennessee a few weeks later. He almost immediately married Gracie Williams, and divided his time with taking care of his farm and engaging in community service endeavours for the years to come. In 1941, a film was made, detailing York’s experiences at war. At first, York was hesitant about his story being displayed as a movie, but eventually he let the producers go through with it only after they agreed to some of his requests. One of the main things he didn’t want was it just to be about his glorious triumphs at war, but rather, also detailing his religious convictions and community involvement. Gary Cooper, who played York, won an Oscar for the role, and the film, Sergeant York ended up being one of the best movies of the year. Despite all of his success, York lived a simple and quiet life on his farm with his family, and had eight children, two girls and six boys.

One of his sons, Woodrow Wilson York, served with the U.S. military during the 1940s, and another one of his sons, Thomas York, joined the U.S. Air Force in 1956 and unfortunately died at the age of eighteen. Sergeant York received many payments from the motion picture, most of which he donated to his school, the Alvin C. York Industrial School located in Jamestown, Tennessee, which was made to teach modern job skills for generations to come. The school is now known as the Alvin C. York Institute, which stands today as a tribute to Sergeant York’s legacy. He also donated to a local bible college. Unfortunately, York didn’t budget his money well, and by 1960, the U.S. government informed York that he owned roughly $85,000 in debt, which would be about $675,000 now. The debt was eventually paid off with help from Congressman Sam Rayburn and other admirers of York. York suffered from an incapacitating stroke in the early 1960s, as well as other health conditions like being nearly diabetic, having arthritis, and being out of shape. York wanted to enroll in World War II, but these health conditions prevented his enlistment, forcing him to take a non-combat role. He sought pension payments to help him, but it wasn’t enough. Alvin York couldn’t get over his bad health conditions and died of hemorrhagic stroke in the Veterans’ Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, when he was 77 years old. To this day, a statue stands in the Tennessee State Capitol grounds, honoring the life of an American legend.

To this day, Sergeant Alvin York is honored as a American war hero due to his stunning triumphs during battle throughout World War I. Although he was showered with much praise, he still faced great tragedy in being forced to kill and losing his friends, which is a necessary evil that comes with war. Unfortunately, in war, triumph and tragedy. As Sergeant York said, “The war was over, I had done done my job and I had done it the bestest I could.”

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The Most Awarded Soldier in the History of the World War 1. (2022, Apr 15). Retrieved from