Revisiting America’s World War I Cemeteries
Presented at the Oakwood Village Program "Commemorating and Remembering the 100th Anniversary Of Armistice Day"
Arts and Education Center, Oakwood Village, Madison, Wisconsin.
Last August, with my daughter Martha, I revisited several World War I American Military Cemeteries in France, plus a World War II American Military Cemetery in Italy. I first visited these cemeteries 65 years ago. I wanted to visit them once more while still able to do so. I wanted to honor the 100th anniversary of the Armistice Day Agreement that ended World War I. I also wanted to pay tribute to the many young Americans who gave their lives fighting in that “war to end all wars.” I knew this trip would be both sobering and emotional, and it was. Here is my story.
One hundred years ago today my wife Sally’s father, James W. Porch, celebrated with other American soldiers fighting in Europe, including two of my uncles, the November 11, 1918, signing of the Armistice Agreement that ended what was then known as the Great War. Sally’s father served as a First Lieutenant and Company Commander in the 5th Infantry Division. My two uncles, my Mother’s brother Art Spillum and her brother-in-law, Miles Hulett, both fought with the 32nd Infantry Division. My uncles served in the artillery battalions of the 32nd Infantry Division. During the last six weeks of the war they all fought in the fierce Meuse-Argonne Offensive. All survived but none of them would ever talk about their wartime experience. “Too terrible to describe” is about all they would say.
My memories of World War I go back to elementary school in the late 1930s. We regularly commemorated Armistice Day with a program of poetry and songs. Through poetry, we encountered our first exposure to war and death by reciting such well-known poems as John McRae’s “In Flanders Field” or Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier.” Through song, we celebrated our nation and its people with patriotic favorites such as My Country ‘Tis of Thee and America the Beautiful, and perhaps a World War I song such as Over There. These programs ended just before the sacred hour of 11 a.m. when factories all over Racine, Wisconsin, where I grew up, blew their whistles. They did this to signal a two-minute pause to remember the end of the “War to End All Wars.”
The prose and poetry of World War I are especially interesting because they reflect the dramatic shift in sentiment about war. It shifted from initial enthusiasm to utter disillusionment as the war progressed and the casualties steadily mounted. The cruelty reality of trench war emerges from Paul Fussell’s masterful book The Great War and Modern Memory (1975). There he focuses on the interplay between war and the memory of war, how each shapes the other, as revealed by the war’s prose and poetry. Fussell’s later book The Norton Book of Modern War (1991), offers a good sampling of the war’s prose and poetry, both by those who participated in the war and those on the home front most affected by it. His excerpt from Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (1933) is especially moving; her finance, a brother, and several dear male friends were all killed in the war. So also is Neil Hanson’s book, Unknown Soldiers: The Story of the Missing of the First World War (2005). Several other books are described on the back of tonight’s program.
American battle casualties in World War I came to more than 50,000 killed and more than 200,000 wounded. These numbers paled by comparison with the casualties suffered by the French (1,400,000 killed), the British Empire (almost 1,000,000 killed including 750,000 from England and Scotland), and, Germany (more than 2 million killed).
After the war something had to be done with the more than 50,000 American servicemen buried in temporary graves in France. In 1923 Congress established the American Battle Monuments Commission. Its charge was to lead efforts to commemorate those Americans who lost their lives. The Commission quickly recognized that permanent cemeteries were needed. Sites were selected in northeastern France for 15 battle monuments and cemeteries. Before the remains of fallen soldiers were moved to their final resting places, their next-of-kin were given the option of requesting that the bodies of their loved ones be returned for burial in the United States; more than half the families requested the return of their loved ones for burial here.
Great effort went into the design of these cemeteries and battle monuments in land ceded by France to the U.S. Eminent architects were commissioned to design not only these cemeteries and memorial monuments but also their accompanying artwork and landscaping. Each cemetery is surrounded by a large decorative, iron fence, In addition to the cemetery office and a visitor’s building located inside the front gate, the memorial is located at the back of the cemetery. That structure contains a small chapel. It lists the names of the Missing in Action, those soldiers whose bodies could not be found. Each name is followed by the military unit to which the soldier was attached. The structure also includes a map depicting the battlefield. Finally, there is usually some artwork and perhaps an appropriate quotation. Everything about the battle memorials is most tastefully done. There is no glorification of war; simply a recognition of the sacrifice of those who are memorialized there.
What is most impressive as one approaches these cemeteries is the sea of white crosses in perfectly aligned rows that mark the graves of those buried there. As already noted, each marble cross lists the name of the soldier buried there, his rank and military unit, the state from which he came, and the date of his death. Interspersed are crosses for the Unknowns that carry the words: HERE RESTS IN HONORED GLORY AN AMERICAN SOLDIER KNOWN BUT TO GOD. Some crosses are topped with the Star of David. A few crosses indicate the person buried there received the Congressional Medal of Honor, the Nation’s highest award for gallantry in battle. Again, the placement of the grave markers, in perfectly straight lines, or often in gently curving rows, adds to the majesty of the scene. The result is a remarkable network of American cemeteries and memorials that represent and honor the many Americans who gave their lives in the Great War.
As you may recall, the German Army invaded France and Belgium in the summer of 1914. They fought tenaciously against the combined English and French armies, which were supplemented by soldiers from the British Commonwealth and the French colonies. Eventually, in 1918, the arrival of more than two million American soldiers shifted the balance of power. Though often poorly trained, the American troops fought with great energy and courage. After the aggressive Allied military campaigns in the summer and fall of 1918, the tide of battle turned. By November 1918 the Germans were in retreat. But, they never ceded without a fight the ground they occupied since the beginning of the war.
Let me now shift ground and tell you about my last summer “pilgrimage” to the World War cemeteries and memorials.
The first of the cemeteries we visited is named the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery. It is located adjacent to Belleau Wood. There the Marines assigned to capture that strategic area suffered enormous casualties in charging against the more-experienced and well-entrenched German forces. That battle, which lasted six days, ended with the American capture of that area. Visitors can walk up a hill behind the cemetery to view the scene of the Belleau Woods battle. Some still-preserved trenches there had been occupied by both American and German forces as the battle see-sawed back and forth.
This cemetery contains the graves of 2,289 killed and the names of 1,060 Missing in Action, plus 249 Unknowns. The cemetery is strikingly beautiful, with its plots of perfectly-aligned white marble crosses. As already noted, each grave marker lists the name of the soldier buried there, along with his rank, unit, state of residence, and date of death. The impressive memorial monument at the rear of the cemetery, includes a small chapel, lists the names of the Missing in Action, displays a map of the surrounding battle area, and includes some information about the military units that fought there. The artwork and statuary is most tastefully done.
I very much wanted to revisit the Meuse-Argonne cemetery where my relatives fought. The cemetery commemorates the American-mounted offensive to break through the German lines and force their retreat back to Germany. This campaign, lasting from September 26 through October 26, 1918, proved to be successful. But, it resulted in more than 26,000 American dead and 75,000 wounded. This cemetery, the largest from World War I, is the final resting place for 14,246 soldiers and 954 Missing in Action. Many of the dead from that campaign had been returned for burial in the United States.
Sally’s father, a First Lieutenant in the 61st Brigade of the 5th Infantry Division, fought in this vicious campaign. He survived unharmed; so did my two uncles. But, as noted earlier, he would never talk about their military service in France; nor would my two uncles. (A sense for the battle is revealed by film clips that can be found by googling the World War I Meuse-Argonne campaign.)
My most depressing experience was visiting the British Memorial at Thiepval. It lists the names of the more than 72,000 Missing in Action British and Commonwealth soldiers whose bodies could never be found or identified. This number is not that surprising in light of the intense shelling by both the Allied and the German artillery. The unlucky soldiers hit by artillery shells were simply obliterated. Because of the intensity of the fighting, many of the dead and wounded had to be left in No Man’s Land where they were eventually destroyed by subsequent shelling, drowned in the mud and water of shell holes, or devoured by the ever-present rats.
The large number of the Missing In Action can be understood by knowing something about the Battle of the Somme that raged from July 1, 1916 to November 2, 1916. British casualties on the first day of that battle came to 19,000 dead and another 40,000 wounded as the British troops, charging across No Man’s Land, were mowed down by the new “engine of death”, the machine gun. Most of the dead and wounded could not be retrieved because the frontline remained unchanged as a result of this costly battle.
Being in France, we took the opportunity to visit Normandy, the site of the World War II D-Day invasion. The Normandy American cemetery there contains the graves of 9,387 war dead, and lists the names of the 1,557 Missing in Action—those who died in the D-Day invasion and the hedge-row fighting that continued in the following several months.
And, now to the second and more difficult part of my pilgrimage, a subject I still find difficult to talk about. This was my return visit to the World War II Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Nettuno, Italy, about 40 miles south of Rome. On my first visit in 1953, the cemetery’s construction was not yet complete. The graves markers were in place but the memorial monument was still under construction and the landscaping remained incomplete. What most impressed me now, 65 years later, is the greatly increased beauty of that cemetery. The Roman Pine trees have attained their full height of 50-60 feet, carefully-trimmed shrubbery demarks the major sections of the cemetery, several garden plots are bright with color, and the well-mowed grass is bright green in the morning sunlight. The memorial monument is striking.
The reason for this trip? To visit the grave of an older brother, James W. Hansen, a member of the 34th Infantry Division. On October 27, 1943---75 years ago--- he was killed in action in the brutal Italian Campaign. He was a Sergeant, and a forward observer in the 125th Field Artillery Battalion. His job was to be on the front line directing the firing of the behind-the-lines artillery battalions on enemy targets---troops and tanks that were holding up the advance of the division’s infantry units. At great risk to himself, he moved forward while under enemy fire. From his advanced position he successfully directed artillery fire against a formation of enemy tanks holding up the advance. He continued doing so until he was killed by enemy machine gun fire.
For gallantry in action, he was awarded posthumously a Silver Star, the third highest battle decoration, following the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Medal. Ironically, the telegram announcing his death, “We regret to inform you . . .” arrived on Armistice Day, November 11th 1953, exactly 25 years after the signing of the November 11, 1918 Armistice Agreement that ended “the war to end all wars.”
I have difficulty saying much more about this part of my visit. What is so sad is the large numbers of young Americans, like my brother, who were killed or missing in action. Plus the many more who were wounded, often seriously, and spent their lives in Veterans’ Administration hospitals. Most of them were like the boys we and our parents attended high school with. Sadly, they were cut down before they ever had a chance to make their mark in civilian society.
In talking with cemetery officials, I was gratified to know that family members, like me, brothers, now-adult children, and friends, continue to visit these cemeteries to pay their respects to the many thousands of young men buried in them.
These many deaths turn out to be the price we have to pay to defend our liberty and to protect us from the tyranny of foreign madmen like the German Kaiser in World War I and dictators like Hitler and Mussolini and their followers in World War II.
Let me close with this observation by the famous Albert Schweitzer. “The soldiers' graves are the greatest preachers of peace." If only that were true.
Since World War I, we have fought in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Granada, Panama, Kuwait, Iraq, and currently, Afghanistan. When will it ever end?
On that sad note, thank all of you for coming to tonight’s program.
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About the Author
At age 92 I decided to showcase my recent and current writings on a variety of topics outside of my career interests as an economist. My wife Sally’s dementia, my experiences of war, and my interests in improving higher education all compel me to write.
For most of the last decade I maintained a low profile, necessitated by my wife Sally's suffering from a decade-long siege of vascular dementia. After she passed away several years ago I wrote about our experience, in the belief that this would be helpful to the many others who suffer from dementia and their family caregivers. I am currently seeking a publisher for my book manuscript: The Forgotten: Dementia and the Right to Die.
Over the past few years I began working on several other writing projects that are described more fully elsewhere in my blog. These include a nearly-completed book manuscript on my "expected proficiencies approach to the college major'' as a vehicle for reinvigorating liberal education. I continue to write on the shortcomings of UW-Madison's affirmative action policies and programs that over the years have been renamed "diversity and inclusion" policies and programs.
Within two weeks of my graduation from UW-Madison in June 1950, the Korean War broke out. I was drafted and expected to be sent to Korea to join our fighting forces there. But instead I was sent to Turkey for 18 months. How lucky I was. I am also writing a memoir of my Korean War military experience when I served as an U.S. Army adviser in our military aid program in Turkey.
Until I began branching out beyond economics, I failed to realize what a profound effect the Great Depression and World War II had on me as I grew up. I have already captured some of these recollections, with more of them to follow.
With that introduction, I turn you over to my blog entries as well as my other writing projects described more fully elsewhere in my blog. Best wishes ~ W. Lee Hansen
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Award-winning author W. Lee Hansen, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Full bio.