Sunday marks 100 years since the armistice that officially ended World War I, a conflict that greatly impacts the world we live in today and long ago triggered the creation of an institution dedicated to honoring America’s war dead.
We commonly observe November 11 as Veterans Day, but it was originally known as Armistice Day because the guns of World War I fell silent at 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918.
Dr. Thomas Conner teaches military history at Hillsdale College in Michigan and is the author of the new book “War and Remembrance: The Story of the American Battle Monuments Commission.” He says four years of brutal slaughter ended at that hour because that’s what the warring parties agreed to beforehand. And men were still being killed right up until that arbitrary deadline.
Conner says most Americans have a much better sense of what happened in World War II but understanding World War I is actually more important to making sense of the world today.
“The First World War did have a far greater impact in shaping the 20th century than even the Second World War did because we are very much living in the shadow of the First World War still,” said Conner.
He says the redrawing of maps, especially the carving up of the Ottoman Empire’s lands in the Middle East, is a major challenge for us even now.
“There were a lot of new countries created in the aftermath of the First World War, which really aren’t countries in the truest sense. Their populations are divided on religious grounds and even cultural grounds, places like Iraq.
“We’ve learned the hard way from our own involvement in Iraq, for example, just how complex that territorial domain, that was called Iraq from about 1920 in the wake of World War I, really is,” said Conner.
While the U.S. had participated in overseas wars before World War I, nothing before approached the scale of U.S. involvement and the question arose after the war of what to do with the remains of some 100,000 American deaths in Europe.
That’s when the American Battle Monuments Commission was created. The ABMC eventually became caretakers of eight World War I cemeteries and fourteen World War II sites, in addition to many monuments and memorials.
“War necessitated the creation of the American Battle Monuments Commission but the purpose and ongoing mission of that agency is to foster remembrance of the dead,” said Conner.
Families were given the choice of burying their loved ones on the field of battle or have their remains shipped home. Conner says the 22 cemeteries contain the remains of 125,000 Americans who fell in the two world wars.
A visit to any of these cemeteries will reveal the stunningly meticulous care taken to care for the grounds and the tombstones. Conner says that’s no accident, as the maintenance is the commitment of the American government and the American people to honor those who gave their lives for our nation.
Conner says the book is a labor of love. He has visited ABMB cemeteries and monuments for 40 years, often taking groups of college or high school students, and forged deep friendships with the people assigned to care for the those grounds. He wants as many people as possible to know about these sites and hopes they will heighten admiration for the full measure of devotion given by multiple generations of Americans.
“It’s a shame that more Americans don’t know about these sites but I’m hoping the book will make at least something of a dent in people’s awareness and get the story out there. It’s a beautiful story and it’s a story that all Americans can be proud of,” said Conner.
Listen to the full podcast to learn more about the significance of World War I, which country actually owns the land, and what it’s like to visit such places.