The World War I Centennial: Why Should Americans Care?

Guest post by Marian Moser Jones

Why should Americans commemorate the centennial of World War I? Since visiting the Somme battlefields in France earlier this summer, I’ve been wrestling with this question.

At the Thiepval memorial, located on the site of a village that was entirely flattened during this so-called “Great War,” I walked through a monumental archway and gazed across rows upon rows of British Empire grave markers inscribed “A soldier of the Great War/ Known but to God.” Next to them lay French graves marked with crosses labeled, starkly, “inconnu” (unknown). Then I trudged along the side of the auto route for several miles, past acres of potato leaves, shimmering stalks of wheat, and cemeteries, to stand on the lip of the Lochnagar crater. This hole, the largest man-made crater in the world, was created in one push of a detonation switch by British soldiers who had earlier tunneled under German trenches and planted 60 thousand pounds of high explosives there. Now carpeted by lush grass, it has the look of a scarified wound in the earth. Rabbits hop out of holes along the perimeter and birds tweet in the nearby brush, but metal signs along the fence warn that the crater is still very dangerous. The soil in the entire surrounding region, in fact, continues to yield up grisly reminders of the century old conflict, from long-buried shells that explode in construction workers’ faces to skeletons that surface during re-paving of parking lots.

As a historian who has written about the Great War, I was glad to have made this pilgrimage. Yet even at sites where American involvement in the war was acknowledged, I couldn’t help feeling like an outsider. Everywhere I went, there were British school groups, British families spilling out of RVs, and French locals happy to have the tourist business. I was repeatedly mistaken for an English woman or an Australian. When I told a taxi driver I was an American, he responded with the French equivalent to “we don’t get too many of your kind ‘round here.”

And why should Americans go to these sites? It is easy to argue that the Great War wasn’t really our war. The U.S. only participated militarily during the final, if decisive, months of the conflict. Our casualty count of 116,000 dead and 204,000 wounded is far smaller than American casualty counts in the Civil War or World War II. In fact, many more Americans died in the influenza pandemic of 1918-19 than on the World War I battlefields. By contrast, Russia alone suffered 12 million casualties, Germany seven million, France six million, and the British Empire over three million during this war.

World War I nevertheless transformed American society in significant ways. The American Legion, the Gold Star Mothers Association, and the Veterans’ Administration are just a few of the institutions spawned by the war and its aftermath. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery was established to honor the unknown American dead of World War I, and its original inhabitant was buried in a coffin lined with French soil from the battlefields where he had fought.

This war is also significant for ushering in a new era in American humanitarianism. As I describe in my book, The American Red Cross from Clara Barton to the New Deal, nearly 30 million Americans, including an “army” of eight million female volunteers, became involved with the Red Cross during the war, as it grew from a small disaster relief body into a sprawling behemoth with humanitarian activities in 25 countries. This activity amounted to what historian Julia Irwin has argued was a national “humanitarian awakening,” initiating an American tradition of global humanitarian engagement that continues to this day.

Moreover, the unprecedented level of women’s participation in the war, whether as Red Cross volunteers rolling bandages, or as professional nurses who served in the war zone, pushed women’s rights forward. It is no accident that the Nineteenth Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote, was finally ratified in 1920.

But the fact that this war changed American society is not sufficient to justify an American centennial commemoration. War commemorations are emotional events that meet needs buried deep in the national or human psyche; they are not academic exercises.

One of the most profound Great War commemorations happens every July 1st at the Lochnagar crater. On that morning, the anniversary of the crater’s creation, visitors gather in a circle at its edges and hold hands. The crater’s owner, a private British citizen, has sought to transform it into a symbol of “peace, reconciliation, and fellowship between all nations who fought on the Western Front.”

It was while standing at this crater that I finally realized why Americans need to be part of the World War I centennial. The crater was not created directly by Americans; it was created even before American soldiers entered the war. But Americans nevertheless played a big part in making this crater, and in transforming the surrounding area into a pocked-marked, corpse-strewn wasteland. Beginning in 1915, Americans were financing the Allied war effort. Wall Street financier Henry P. Davison convinced his partner, J.P. Morgan, to float half a billion dollars in war loans to the British and the French. When the Americans entered the war in the spring of 1917, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Davison to head the American Red Cross War council, which ran the organization during the war and raised the then-unbelievable sum of $400 million for war refugees and medical aid to American soldiers. With one hand, American capital enabled unprecedented levels of explosives to flow to the Western Front, while with the other, it stanched the wounds caused by these explosives through unprecedented flows of humanitarian aid.

This simultaneous remoteness from war and central involvement in it has since become a recurrent theme in American military history, as has this close intertwining of military and humanitarian involvement. Both trends are complex and troubling. And this is why Americans — both scholars and laypersons — need to join hands with people from other countries, take a long look into that crater, and begin to ponder the lessons of the Great War.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.