Last week during the visit of French President Emmanuel Macron to Washington D.C. I was really pleased to see the centenary of World War One commemorated by the planting of an oak tree brought over from Belleau Wood. It was a wonderful gesture; a tree planted in the grounds of the Whitehouse from a French battlefield where thousands of young Americans spilled their blood almost 100 hundreds ago. But this morning I heard on NPR that the tree had been removed and placed into quarantine. Although I completely understand the reasons behind it, and know that it will eventually be re-planted, the symbolism of an empty piece of grass where there was an oak sapling from the site of America's first experience of the horrors of the Western front was not wasted on me.
This weekend I attended a World War One Symposium at the Centre for Leadership and Ethics at the Virginia Military Institute. It was a really wonderful event with some fantastic speakers that included the Director, Colonel David Gray, and Professor Micheal Nieberg from the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. My knowledge of America's involvement in the First World War is very limited so this was the perfect event for me. The one overriding theme I took from the lectures and from speaking to both event speakers and attendees is a wish that the American public had a better awareness of their countries involvement in one of the most cataclysmic events of the Twentieth Century.
One speaker mentioned that before the end of World War Two, the history of American involvement in the First World War was widely known and taught in schools. The names of men like Sergeant Alvin York were known by all young men and battles such as Belleau wood and the Meuse-Argonne offensive were known in every household. But after 1945 they were replaced in the American folklore by men like Generals Eisenhower, McArthur, and Patton, and battles like Midway, D-Day, Iwo Jima and the Battle of the Bulge.
In Washington D.C. there are plans to commemorate the ending of the First World War with a dedicated memorial; The Unites States World War One Centennial Commission appear to be working diligently to reignite the countries interest. After losing 116,516 men in just six months of combat in World War One, compared to the 58,220 lost in two decades of the Vietnam War, and the 405,399 men lost during the three and a half years of America's participation in World Two, it is staggering it has not happened sooner.
The hardest thing to understand regarding this collective amnesia is the fact it appears to be unique to the United States. Elsewhere in countries like Britain, Australia, Canada, and other allied countries, the centenary of the First World War has been commemorated much more publicly. One attendee I spoke to this weekend who had travelled many times to the Western Front, described battlefields like the Somme, Ypres, Verdun and Arras as packed with visitors while those of the Meuse-Argonne were virtually deserted.
My hope is that the centenary of Armistice Day, the re-planting of the Belleau Wood oak tree at the Whitehouse, combined with a new national monument in our nation's capital, will allow World War One and those fought in it, to take their rightful place in this nation's history.