The construction of American cemeteries and repatriation of American soldiers after the First World War.
The construction of American cemeteries and repatriation of American soldiers after the First World War.

The construction of American cemeteries and repatriation of American soldiers after the First World War.

Approximately 116,000 American soldiers died in WWI; another 204,002 were wounded. The debate over what to do with America’s fallen soldiers began during the war itself, as grief-stricken parents and widows presented conflicting demands to the War Department. Many of these mourners insisted that the federal government repatriate the dead. Others regarded the removal of an American soldier from the supposedly sacred ground where he fell as unthinkable. Former President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) publically lent his support to the latter view after his son Quentin Roosevelt (1897-1918), a U.S. Army aviator, was killed in a dogfight on 14 July 1918. In an appeal to the War Department, subsequently published in The New York Times, Roosevelt expressed his family’s attitude through an instantly famous metaphor: “We feel that where the tree falls there let it lie.” Roosevelt’s endorsement gave a powerful boost to the non-repatriation effort. Nevertheless, pressure from the opposite camp, which held a numerical advantage, led Secretary of War Newton D. Baker (1871-1937) to make a fateful promise in September 1918. With little thought given to the enormous logistical and diplomatic difficulties that repatriation would entail, Baker publically assured American families that their dead would be returned to them.
From Armistice Day 1918 though April 1919, the US Congress and the War Department struggled with the daunting implications of this pledge, and many civilian and military leaders looked for a way out. A powerful anti-repatriation organization emerged, known as the American Field of Honor Association, with none other than John J. Pershing (1860-1948), William Howard Taft (1857-1930), and Samuel Gompers (1850-1924) topping its roster of members. The Association argued against repatriation in principle, but also pointed out practical difficulties, such as the high cost involved and the health hazards posed by the transportation of so many cadavers. The organization also alleged that American morticians had unwritten the entire repatriation scheme. An equally formidable lobbying group, the Bring Home the Soldier Dead League, squared off against the Association and continually reminded the federal government of Baker’s promise.
These organizations waged a sometimes vicious war of words against one another in the American press until the spring of 1919, when President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) signed into law legislation predictably designed to please both sides. Parents could choose between having their dead permanently memorialized at an American military cemetery overseas or returned stateside at governmental expense, and they had until 1923 to make their decision.
In the end, more than 45,000 American families opted for repatriation, and throughout the early 1920s ships bearing flag-draped caskets, sometimes thousands at a time, landed in Hoboken, New Jersey, where military and civilian dignitaries, including President Warren G. Harding (1865-1923), were on hand to receive them.  From there, the caskets went by rail to cities and towns across the nation, where a posthumous hero’s welcome awaited each one. Behind the patriotic hoopla, however, were gruesome realities. For understandable reasons, some of the caskets contained the wrong bodies, others no bodies at all – just body parts thought to belong to the same individual.

Shown in the visitor center at Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, this film, through historic and modern-day imagery, and recollections from letters, gives a clearer perspective of the true cost of war. The film touches on the intense fighting of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. It discusses how family members had to select repatriation to the United States for burial, or permanent interment in an American, overseas cemetery. It covers the Gold Start Mother Pilgrimages that gave women the opportunity to visit their son or husband’s burial location overseas. The film also includes details about how African-American women were treated during these pilgrimages.

However, the decision to leave a soldier’s remains in Europe offered no antidote to such indignities. Great Britain decided to leave its war dead in literally thousands of battlefield cemeteries – some with fewer than fifty individual graves – that generally corresponded with the actual locations where the inhabitants of these cemeteries died. In contrast, the American Battle Monuments Commission, founded in 1923 and chaired by John J. Pershing, created seven centralized cemeteries in France and Belgium, one for each area where major American military operations had occurred, plus an additional cemetery in England. This approach saved money (the upkeep of Great Britain’s thousands of cemeteries necessitated a small army of gardeners), and by concentrating so many grave markers together served to amplify the scale of American sacrifice, which had, in fact, been modest in comparison with the millions of fatalities suffered by Great Britain, France and Germany. However, the decision to centralize commemoration in this fashion also meant that the bodies that wound up in ABMC cemeteries had, in many cases, been unearthed and reburied multiple times by the Graves Registration Service before reaching their permanent resting place.
The repatriation debate revealed a deep fissure in national memory. To proponents of overseas commemoration, the rows upon rows of white crosses (interrupted here and there by a Star of David) at the massive ABMC cemeteries on the former Western Front represented America’s noble sacrifices in the defense of civilization.

Keeping America’s war dead permanently over there not only sent a strong message about Anglo- and Franco-American ties, but also symbolized America’s new leadership role on the global stage. In contrast, repatriation symbolized a rejection of this internationalist agenda. Once buried in local cemeteries, the dead took their place in a trans-historical narrative of American service and sacrifice that ignored the specific causes and results of the nation’s intervention in the Great War.
Dividing commemoration between the foreign and the domestic failed, by and large, to produce culturally resonant sites of memory. Policies implemented by the ABMC did not help matters. For example, fearing that battlefields like the Meuse-Argonne and St. Mihiel would become as cluttered with monuments as Gettysburg or Shiloh, the ABMC tried to block the erection of unit- or state-specific memorials and even dismantled many of the dozens of homemade monuments left behind by members of the American Expeditionary Forces. The Commission’s head board also vetoed the idea of personalized inscriptions on grave markers. Thus, commemorative objects that might have carried special meaning for returning veterans were ruled out.


An emotional moment, a Belgian little girl brings a final greeting to the fallen American soldiers.
In place of these personal touches, the ABMC applied a rigid formula unlike anything in the history of American war remembrance up to that point. The Commission treated every area of major American operations – the Meuse Argonne, St. Mihiel, Chateau Thierry, etc. – in a consistent manner. Each became the site of an imposing central monument (a 200-foot-tall Doric column in the case of the Meuse-Argonne battlefield), a nondenominational chapel outfitted with tablets that listed the names of the missing, and a single cemetery designed to look as gigantic as possible. Nothing else was allowed. French-born architect Paul Cret (1876-1945), whose work blended the Beaux-Arts style with modernist elements, served as the head designer for the eight central memorials. The Commission’s scheme was elegant, and Cret oversaw the creation of some of the most spectacular pieces of battlefield architecture in all of Europe. However, because they valued grandiosity and consistency over intimate and specific meaning, the ABMC’s memorials never lived in the public imagination as those erected by other nations did.
The European half of American WWI commemoration achieved its greatest visibility in the early 1930s, after outgoing President Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933) approved a federal program to send Gold Star mothers (so-named because of the wartime symbol of the gold star, which signified an American fatality) to visit their sons’ graves overseas. Widows of fallen soldiers, added to the legislation as an afterthought, were eligible as well, though not those who had remarried. Between 1930 and 1933, 6,685 American women (a little more than half of those invited) participated in the Gold Star Pilgrimages, as these expense-paid trips to the cemeteries came to be known, and the solemn nature of their journey captured the nation’s attention.

However, even as the pilgrimages brought Americans together in unified awe of Republican motherhood, they underscored longstanding divisions and injustices. No one was particularly surprised to learn that participants in the program were racially segregated (even while the overseas cemeteries themselves were not); what galled African Americans were the familiar conditions of separate and unequal.
In New York, prior to boarding, white mothers and widows stayed free-of-charge in a comfortable hotel; blacks roomed at the YMCA. And while Caucasian participants travelled to Europe first-class aboard luxury liners, African American mothers and widows found themselves consigned to inferior vessels. After learning of these disparities, poet and folklorist James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), a leading figure in the flowering of urban black art and culture known as the Harlem Renaissance, penned one of the most scathing works of literature ever focused on the subject of American war remembrance. In his poem, “Saint Peter Relates an Incident of the Resurrection Day” (1930), he poured his resentment over the mistreatment of African American Gold Star Mothers into a deeply sardonic vision of how white America would react to the discovery that the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier contained a black man.

Source photos; “Jean Paul de Vries” Museum Romagne 14-18