This year marks the 100th anniversary of the American battles of World War I. A century ago, on May 28, 1918, men from the First Division, American Expeditionary Forces, went “over the top” outside a tiny village called Cantigny, in northern France, to conduct the first all-American offensive action of the war. A week later, two regiments of U.S. Marines had their baptism of fire in a bucolic place called Belleau Wood, in the Marne River Valley east of Paris. In the six months that followed, some 2 million U.S. soldiers, Marines and Navy sailors served and fought in 12 separate campaigns and the occupation of Germany that followed. More than 100,000 of those men and women did not return, and some 30,000 rest in American cemeteries in France, Belgium and the United Kingdom.
Over the coming months, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps will conduct a number of observances, both here at home and in Europe, to commemorate America’s involvement in World War I. The U.S. government has also formed a World War I Centennial Commission, with the mission of raising awareness and education across the country. The commission is engaged in a campaign to construct a National World War I Memorial in Washington.
Frank Buckles, of West Virginia, the last living American veteran of World War I, passed away in 2011. His death accelerated our national process of forgetting about the “Great War,” as many termed it at the time. This neglect is not a recent development, however. Even as American troops shipped out “over there” in 1917, the nation was deeply divided over U.S. involvement in the conflict. A nation in the process of receiving thousands of immigrants from the belligerent nations, one whose domestic politics included voting restrictions for most women and Jim Crow legislation reducing blacks to second-class citizens, as well as labor disputes and violence, could hardly be otherwise. The United States mobilized some 4 million men and women to serve during the war, and suffered almost 300,000 casualties in the horrific fighting in Europe.
The fractious, imperfect peace that followed, including President Woodrow Wilson’s failed League of Nations, added to the national ambivalence over the conflict advertised by many as a “war to end all wars.” The experience of black soldiers, thousands of whom volunteered and served overseas, fighting a two-sided war against a battlefield enemy and their own systematic oppression at home, awakened the civil rights movement while it added to the national uncertainty about what the war meant. The war catapulted the U.S. into a global leadership role that it was, at the time, unwilling to accept, and it spawned socio-political resistance and rebellion in the form of socialist movements, the Jazz Age and the “Roaring Twenties.” The advent of the Great Depression and the coming of another world war, which came to be seen as an unalloyed Good War, allowed many in America to put aside the experiences of 1914-18.
American society likes to remember its martial past in black and white, with technologically advanced and numerous American fighting men always on the side of good, and a triumphant process of victory followed by reconciliation. This is the way the nation came to remember its own Civil War, even as it accommodated the losing side in our collective memory and marginalized black voices until very recently. World War II has become an industry of tourism and remembrance for the U.S. and its allies because it is largely seen in those terms. World War I simply does not fit this framework; it offers more frustration than closure, more conflict than resolution.
For the U.S. military, World War I is something of an origin story. A soldier, sailor, Marine, airman or Coast Guardsman serving today would recognize his or her counterpart in 1918; the policies, procedures and technologies that underpin our 21st-century forces saw their beginnings in World War I. For GIs, this centennial is a teachable moment, and it is worthwhile for young men and women in uniform to understand the scale of national mobilization in that war. The vast majority of those 4 million were citizen-soldiers, volunteers from civilian life.
I would encourage all Americans to learn about the World War I era. There are echoes of this age in literally every aspect of our lives today. Research your family’s World War I history. Look around wherever you live; you will probably see a World War I memorial or a building dedicated to those who served in the war. They are all around us, as the national commission’s “Hundred Cities, Hundred Memorials” campaign so aptly describes. Take a moment to learn about the wartime experiences of blacks and women. Investigate the cultural impact of Americans abroad: Did you know that black soldiers introduced jazz to Europe? American women used their service in many wartime roles to jumpstart the women’s suffrage movement that gained them the right to vote in 1919. Indeed, the timing of the 19th Amendment is not a coincidence. Read or reread “The Great Gatsby,” and consider it as a work of war literature. If business or pleasure travel takes you to Europe, plan a visit to a cemetery or memorial administered by the American Battle Monuments Commission. You will come away with a different perspective of our place in the world, and your place as an American citizen.
In whatever way you can, resolve to capitalize on the World War I Centennial. By taking this opportunity to remember, but more importantly to learn from the perspective that the past can offer us, we can arrest the slow drip of forgetting about the single most formative event in modern American history.
Charles R. Bowery Jr. is executive director of the United States Army Center of Military History.