On May 29, we will honor those who died in our country’s wars.
Americans who live near a Civil War cemetery may visit it to remember those who fought to preserve the Union and free the slaves. Others will hang out a flag to honor grandfathers who died fighting in the Pacific in the Second World War, fathers who died in Korea or Vietnam, or sons and brothers who died in Iraq or Afghanistan. Families whose relatives returned safely from those wars may give thanks that their loved ones were spared.
Amidst the general memories, there is one war that will likely be forgotten: the First World War.
Although the Civil War was fought over 150 years ago, that conflict remains a highly contested memory. The Second World War is more recent: we have all seen its veterans at Fourth of July parades and remember survivors returning to the beaches of Normandy they stormed on June 4, 1944. Other wars are even closer: My father served in Korea and we all know veterans of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
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Our culture also keeps these wars alive for us: millions have visited Gettysburg, and can recognize the iconic photo of Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima. The Vietnam Memorial is always crowded with visitors touching the names on the wall and “The Hurt Locker” movie took us inside the fight against terror in Iraq.
The First World War has no similar iconography. Very few have seen a movie about the war or visited the museum in Kansas City dedicated to the conflict.
Our Second World War and Vietnam Veterans Memorial are justly famous. Our national First World War Memorial? There isn’t one. There’s a Pershing Park in Washington, dedicated to the general who led our forces in 1917-18, and a war memorial is being built there, but the projected completion date is hazy.
There were ceremonies this year marking the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into the war, but few paid attention. Does anyone think the centennial of Pearl Harbor will pass unnoticed in 2041?
Yet the First World War was important. Americans not only fought it, they helped determine its result.
In 1918, Allied armies on the Western front were exhausted after four years of warfare. American soldiers provided not only fresh troops, but a vital morale boost that enabled the French and British to survive the German spring 1918 offensive.
The battles that were fought by American troops in France deserve to be remembered. One of the most famous occurred in June 1918, when the Marines first engaged in force near the Marne, in the battle of Belleau Wood. It was here that Captain Lloyd Williams, when told by a French officer to fall back, retorted, “Retreat, hell! We just got here!”
The Marines responded and took Belleau Wood from the German forces within a few weeks, at a cost of 1,811 casualties.
The Germans were so impressed by the fighting spirit of the Marines that they called them “Teufel Hunden,” German for “Devil Dogs,” a nickname Marines still use. The French later renamed Belleau Wood “Bois de la Brigade de Marine” in gratitude to the American soldiers. To this day Marines who serve in the 5th and 6th regiments wear the “fourragere,” a French military award for valor, on their uniforms.
Of the 2,289 American soldiers buried at the Aisne-Marne American cemetery in France, many died fighting at Belleau Wood.
While the world may today characterize the First World War as a futile and wasteful conflict, or blame the peace treaty that followed it for causing the Second World War, this should not impact our remembrance of the soldiers who died fighting it. Many believed strongly that fighting that war was in the best interests of this country and went to Europe convinced they were doing the right thing.
The University of Kentucky’s Memorial Hall was dedicated on May 30, 1929 as a memorial to Kentucky soldiers, and contains panels showing the names of the 2,756 Kentuckians who died in that war. Yet, even students who use the hall frequently don’t always know the significance of those names. The Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs is coordinating centennial events throughout the commonwealth, yet few are aware of these programs.
On this Memorial Day, we should all spare a thought for the First World War and the soldiers who died in it. They deserve our respect and a place in our memory.
Terri Blom Crocker, author of “The Christmas Truce: Myth, Memory, and the First World War,” is an instructor in the University of Kentucky’s Department of History.