Honoring the Service, Achievements, and Sacrifices of U.S. Armed Forces for 90 Years
World War I was the bloodiest and most expensive war to date in the experience of the nations that fought it. In its aftermath governments and their citizens struggled to make sense of the carnage, and to reconcile grief for their losses with respect for the causes for which they had died. The United States, although it had suffered less than the other major combatants, was no exception. Over 116,000 Americans had died in World War I and almost 205,000 had been wounded, most of them in France. How were these sacrifices to be memorialized, and how were the achievements of these servicemen and women and their colleagues to be recognized?
The American people had mixed traditions with respect to honoring their war dead. Early militia battles had often been relatively close to home, and repatriation to community cemeteries or family plots could be practical. The fallen rested alongside their relatives. As operations progressed further afield, technical limits made repatriation less practical. Cemeteries developed proximate to battlefields, and the fallen rested alongside their comrades in arms. The Mexico City National Cemetery is a case in point.
The Civil War dwarfed all previous American experience with respect to casualties. Many war dead were repatriated to their communities, but many others were buried near where they died. Arlington National Cemetery is an example. In addition to cemeteries, monuments sprang up to honor both sacrifice and achievement. These were funded from a variety of sources – private, community, state and national – and included monuments in front of seats of government and monuments and markers tracking the flow of and unit participation in major battles. Gettysburg Battlefield, for example, features such extensive on-site memorialization.
World War I presented the complexities of battlefields thousands of miles from home on foreign soil. The dead were hastily interred, but by and large accounted for in such a manner that they could be exhumed and re-interred at war’s end. The American Graves Registration Service, established in 1917, assumed supervisory responsibilities for over 2,300 cemeteries and 15,000 individual graves. It proved impractical to immediately repatriate these upon war’s end, but consolidation of remains into eight major cemeteries soon began. In due course families were offered a choice between the return home of their loved ones, and having them buried amidst their comrades in monumental and scrupulously tended government-run cemeteries overseas. The families of over 30,000 chose the latter.
Meanwhile, variously funded memorials and monuments were planned for or built on various American battlefields in Europe. The War Department became alarmed over the unevenness in quality, disproportionate representation of units, and historical distortions being introduced. Uncontrolled or poorly maintained, these memorials and markers could come to embarrass the very memories they were intended to honor. Congress came to share the War Department’s anxiety that something akin to a theme park might emerge. Monuments and memorials appropriate to the breadth of the sacrifice, scale of the victory, and status of the nation were necessary. On March 4, 1923 President Warren G. Harding signed a bill into law establishing the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC). After further deliberations and an extraordinary regime of design and construction, the ABMC would field, maintain and supervise eight elegant cemeteries, eleven grand monuments and two poignant markers honoring the American participation in World War I. It also acquired supervisory responsibilities towards overseas monuments sponsored by American agencies other than the Federal Government. It’s first Chairman, General of the Armies John J. Pershing, established an imperative and credo to which it still remains true: “Time will not dim the glory of their deeds.”
Following World War II, ABMC grew to include 14 World War II commemorative cemeteries each designed with the same intent as that of the World War I cemeteries. Over time, ABMC was directed by congress to maintain the Mexico City National Cemetery in Mexico and Corozal American Cemetery in Panama. Today, ABMC cares for 24 cemeteries and 25 monuments, memorials and markers across the globe. While now under the care of the National Park Service, ABMC constructed the World War II Memorial and the Korean War Veterans Memorial on the National Mall along with the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) Memorial located within Pershing Park, Washington D.C.