Monuments, Cemeteries, World War I

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By the First World War Armistice of 1919, America's war dead, substantially fewer than the loss suffered by other nations, numbered more than 75,000. Honoring a promise made in 1918, the War Department agreed to provide a home burial to all who died in its foreign service. Alternatively, Americans could choose to leave their loved ones buried in national cemeteries overseas. The American government turned to its people in search of a compromise on the issue. In place of consensus, widely divergent views prompted a democratic response that supported individual choice, with the result that over 30,000 U.S. bodies were left buried overseas.

The American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) assumed control of these cemeteries and promptly established full authority over the commemoration of America's military achievements on behalf of the nation. In this case, no public endorsement was sought from citizens at home as commissioners with powerful political agendas attempted to create an image of national solidarity abroad. In doing so, they concealed individual, cultural, and religious identities behind celebratory images of a united nation with power and dominion overseas.

For those families whose loved ones had never been found, there would be no personal headstones. The weapons of widespread destruction used during the First World War resulted in an inordinate number of men unaccounted for, graves that had been totally destroyed during battle, and vast numbers of dead who remained unidentifiable. For the four and a half thousand American "unknowns," national political and military leaders in the United States followed the example of England and France, each of which buried one unidentified soldier in 1920.


On November 11, 1921, a horse-drawn procession went from the Capitol Rotunda to Arlington National Cemetery. In a casket on a caisson were borne the remains of an unknown soldier from World War I who had died in France. Veterans from the conflict attended this ceremony in honor of their fallen fellowmen, including General Pershing, who represented all of the soldiers who had died and been buried in American cemeteries in France. Though seriously ill, former President Woodrow Wilson, who had seen America through this war, was also in attendance. The grave was covered by a temporary granite tomb.

On November 11, 1932, a simple yet elegant sarcophagus of Colorado marble was set in place. One side bears the inscription: "Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God." In later years the remains of soldiers from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War were also interred here, and the memorial was renamed the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In 1999, however, the Pentagon announced that no new remains would be added to the memorial because new technology made the likelihood of there being unidentified remains in the future remote.

Specially trained guards from the 3rd United States Infantry (The Old Guard) guard the tomb 24 hours per day, 365 days per year, and visitors to the monument may watch the changing of this guard. If someone approaches too closely to the memorial, the guards have been instructed to apprehend the trespasser using whatever force necessary.

After resolving disagreements over where the body should be buried, how many unidentified bodies should be returned, and the best day for burial, America laid the body of an unidentified soldier to rest at Arlington Cemetery on November 11, 1921 and designated it the nation's "Unknown Soldier." Assurance of anonymity mattered more than rank, race or social status because the Un-known Soldier symbolised the ideal of national community. Even the marble tomb placed over the grave caused tension, for the public remained undecided as to whether it should symbolize war or peace. Five years passed before Congress finally authorized a white marble compromise. Three allegorical figures of Peace, Valor and a dominant central Victory were depicted on a simple sarcophagus. America, an ambivalent nation struggling with the memory of war focused its remembrance on victory, not death, in order to justify the sacrifices made.

Despite the lack of consensus in American society, construction of memorials continued overseas throughout the 1930s, culminating in the completion of several minor monuments, three major monuments, and eight large cemeteries, each with chapels. In conjunction with the government's Fine Arts Commission, the ABMC shaped an American presence across the former Western Front. Though borrowing much from British war cemetery practice, the ABMC sought to make cemeteries distinctly American with features such as park-like settings and smaller headstones with greater space between graves. Temporary wooden crosses were replaced with uniform white marble crosses or Stars of David, minimizing individual characteristics in an effort to submerge individual identity to the nation's cause.

To form the American presence overseas Paul Cret, a foreign-born architect, was appointed to create the designs for America's civic architecture abroad. Cret's favored choice of classicism contributed to the international debate concerning modernism and classicism that engaged the profession during the 1920s and 1930s. His work provided a bridge between the end of Beaux-Arts historicism and the rise of modernism, closely paralleling the nation's struggle to build continuity between the past and the complex contemporary world its citizens had inherited.

Ambivalence and delay marked the post-war commemorative effort in which a heterogeneous population, late into the conflict and with smaller numbers of war dead than other nations, sought to commemorate the experience that led to America's new world role. Despite the massive death tolls experienced in the Civil War, the past left Americans at home unprepared for the challenge of memorializing the recent war's casualties.

Graves scattered across Europe and the United States complicated efforts to collectively mourn the dead, just as distant battlefields and ABMC restrictions prevented cooperative attempts to mark the war in a personal and meaningful way. Efforts to commemorate at home reflected the feelings within the nation at large as various factions within American society pursued their own constructions of war memory. Sharp differences emerged at home over the types of memorials that would best define the nation. Progressive reformers urged Americans to build living memorials with utilitarian purpose such as bridges, parks, libraries, playgrounds, and community centers. They were met with stern opposition from artists, monument makers, and professional art organizations insisting that statues, paintings, and other artistic expressions would be more appropriate. Ultimately, some of the finest sculptors in the nation were called upon to design suitable memorials numbering more than 950 statues and plaques dedicated to honoring the men and women war heroes.


Each May before Memorial Day, members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) solicit donations for their Veterans Assistance Programs. Donors receive a small, artificial red poppy, a symbol that harks to this famous poem by Canadian physician John McCrae, who died in France in 1918. During World War I over 25,000 American servicemen were interred in American cemeteries in northwestern France.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

While commemoration of the First World War in the United States followed patterns similar to those of other countries, the nation was forced to consider dimensions absent from memorialization as practiced abroad. These added dimensions required a unique and innovative commemorative response to the tenuous connection between national war aims and the high cost of war. Yet, despite the solemn pageantry and hero worship that marked more than a decade of governmental effort to memorialize the war, the resulting symbols failed to mask

the post-war tension, divisiveness, and political rancor of a disillusioned society.


American Battle Monuments Commission. American Armies and Battlefields in Europe, a History, Guide and Reference Book. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1938.

Meigs, Mark. Optimism at Armageddon, Voices of American Particpants in the First World War. London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1997.

Piehler, G. Kurt. Remembering War the American Way. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.

Lisa M. Budreau

See also:Armistice Day; Gold Star Mothers Pilgrimage; Public Opinion; World War I, Visual Arts.