Remembering a Forgotten War: Memorial Day and World War I


In a recent visit to Kansas City, I took the opportunity to visit the National World War I Museum and Liberty Memorial. I found it rather odd that the national museum and memorial to the Great War were located in Kansas City and not D.C. or an East Coast location. However, upon further investigation the location made sense. Kansas City was an entrepôt and depot for soldiers heading to training camps in the East and Midwest. From there, the soldiers of the American Expeditionary Force travelled to France and the trenches of the Western Front.

As Memorial Day approached, it was an interesting time to visit the museum and memorial. The museum was busying itself for the approaching holiday and the grounds of the memorial were in similar preparations. Meticulous care was given to the displays inside the building, as well as the grounds outside. Coincidentally, this Memorial Day aligned with the centennial remembrances of World War I. What struck me as odd was not the traffic in the museum, for surely it was busy for a Tuesday afternoon, but the solemnity of the memorial and the lack of people interested in the tower-like structure. While Memorial Day in the U.S. can trace its roots to commemorative activity immediately following the Civil War, the memorialization of World War I is vague and often forgotten, even with the centennial of American involvement in the war fast approaching. With a visit to the national museum and memorial to the war in the middle of America prompting me, it seems fitting to explore the historiography of America’s involvement in “The War to End All Wars.”

civil war soldiers shaking hands cuba
Who can remember what the whole thing was about?

World War I marked a turning point in America’s remembrance of conflicts. By the time American forces arrived in France in 1917, most of the Civil War generation had passed from the scene. The commemoration and memorialization activity of the post-war Civil War period had quieted to a certain degree, aside from the nationalistic spasm brought about by the Spanish-American War and the attendant conflicts of the turn-of-the-century. What emerged from the short American involvement in the First World War was a heightened sense of American identity, patriotic fervor, and the commemoration of those who fought and died in America’s first European war. What occurred following the armistice in 1918 mirrors to a certain degree the post-Civil War monument craze; however, the battles “over there” influenced discourses of how commemoration should take place “over here.” Repatriation of the dead, the construction of national cemeteries on foreign soil, pilgrimages, and the figure of the Doughboy highlight the remembrance of American involvement in “The War to End All Wars.”

The broad, wrenching powers of modernization forced Americans to revise former concepts of collective identity and reconsider their obligation to the nation. A modern American ideology emerged, one intent on cohesiveness, in which radical, religious, and ethnic differences were suppressed in favor of national unity. In the process, new, Americanized collective identities joined with the benefits of citizenship.[1]

Sgt Lathrop headstone

Most American scholarship regarding the commemoration of U.S. involvement in the First World War is late to the historiographical scene. European assessment of remembrance of the war began in the 1960s and 1970s, highlighted by Paul Fussell’s The Great War in Modern Memory. American scholarship emerged in the 1990s to mid-2000s. For instance, Jennifer Wingate’s “Over the Top: The Doughboy in World War I Memorials and Visual Culture” appeared in 2005. Wingate argues that images of the Doughboy were mythologized in print media and statuary. For many Americans these images of soldiers served as an antidote to radicalism, a sign of vigilance and loyalty, and a reassuring vision of American fitness and manhood. Thus, tangible remembrances of the Doughboy served ideological ends while testifying to the memory of America’s involvement in Europe.

The question of what to do with American dead overseas was fraught with contestation at home and abroad. French and Belgian officials, along with most American political and military leadership, wished for the slain Doughboys to remain where they fell. The American government, after much political dickering, decided to offer next-of-kin repatriation of the remains of their dead family member back to the States. The remaining dead were placed in ornate American cemeteries. During the 1930s, again after much political discussion, the federal government offered the mothers (at this time known as Gold Star Mothers) and widows of slain personnel an all-expenses-paid trip to Europe. These voyages and tours of the battlefields and cemeteries became known as the Gold Star Mother pilgrimages. The Gold Star pilgrimage movement was both patriotic and profound. Yet the movement was also very personal. A mother or widow was presented the opportunity to mourn at her son’s or husband’s graveside half a world away from home.[2] The Gold Star Mother pilgrimages remind us that the phenomenon of remembrance is not always encoded in statuary, monuments, and other tangible reminders of sacrifice. At times, remembrance is a personal, numen-seeking activity that occurs far from home.

gold star mothers patch

What stands out most vividly during the 1920s and 1930s is the intensity with which Americans memorialized their war dead through some of the most grandiose remembrance projects in American history, revisited wartime experience through literature and the newly introduced medium of film, and argued over the meaning – the true memory of World War I – of a conflict shrouded in ambiguity and contradiction.[3] As Steven Trout argues:

From its beginning, American memory of World War I was fractured and unsettled, more a matter of competing versions of memory – each with it own spokespeople – than a single, culturally pervasive construction of the past. For example, the American Legion, the largest veterans organization in American history and the dominant force in postwar memorial building and commemoration ritual, remembered the war as a time of accelerated cultural assimilation and national harmony.[4]

For legionnaires, participation in World War I remained drenched in a nostalgia that grew only more intense with the passage of time. However, African Americans and radicalized whites, both of whom were excluded from the legion’s patriotic embrace, recalled a quite different war. These marginalized groups often turned to pen, paintbrush, and expatriation to construct their version of remembrance. Radicals wrote profusely regarding their experiences during the war. In addition, the rich artwork produced by radicals of the post-war period identifies with a virulently anti-war theme. African American veterans were the most vociferous in the vernacular expressions following the war. Many returned from a fight for democracy to still find segregation and Jim Crow prevalent throughout the nation. Black leaders clamored loudly for equal rights, yet their voices were often muted by white supremacy in the South and indifference in the North. After having observed a more egalitarian society in France, many African Americans joined other marginalized groups and headed back overseas to live. Ambivalence continued to characterize American responses, even as the nation drifted ever more deeply into isolationism. Thus, the memory of World War I oscillated between official, sanctioned remembrance and vernacular expressions that cut against the narrative of the state and patriotic organizations.

Based on this brief review of scholarship, the current zeitgeist regarding American participation in World War I aligns with Trout’s argument. Due to the fractured meaning of America’s participation in Europe from 1917-1918, indifference surrounding current memorialization of World War I makes sense. Americans’ collective memory of World War I is generally relegated to a marginalized status, superseded by the Civil War and World War II. While Doughboy statues appeared in ubiquitous numbers in courthouse squares following the war, many now find themselves in dilapidated, archaic remnants of a war many Americans soon forgot.

The trajectory of memory of the Great War in America is a fascinating phenomenon. The Civil War and World War II still stir the imaginary landscape of the American mind and built environment. Because of the nature of the memory of those two conflicts – one, a conflict between Americans, and the other with veterans still among us – World War I’s memory is centered on a museum in the American Midwest and contested in scholarship. As this Memorial Day weekend unfolds, commemoration of America’s war dead and veterans will revolve around the holiday’s founding after the Civil War and America’s more recent conflicts from World War II forward. In the festivities, scant attention for those dead of World War I will find little airtime. Historical amnesia can be a tricky endeavor.

Steve Bare is a PhD student at the University of Toledo. Bare is an Americanist with a focus on American war and memory from the Civil War through World War I. He lives in Toledo with his dog Kirby and is an avid foodie at heart.


[1] Lisa M. Budreau, Bodies of War: World War I and the Politics of Commemoration in America, 1919-1933, (New York: New York University Press, 2011), 1-2.

[2] John W. Graham, The Gold Star Mother Pilgrimages of the 1930s: Overseas Grave Visitations by Mothers and Widows of Fallen U.S. World War I Soldiers, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2005), 11.

[3] Steven Trout, On the Battlefield of Memory: The First World War and American Remembrance, 1919-1941, (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2010), 1-2.

[4] Ibid., 2.