With 2017 lurking just around the corner, there has been a slight uptick in books published about the United States’s involvement in the First World War. Which is kind of funny–for me at least–because WWI is one of the forgotten wars in American public memory (the others are the Spanish-American War and the Philippines War). You can say Lexington and Concord, Gettysburg, Normandy, Seoul, Saigon…and images and associations immediately flood your brain. Meuse-Argonne, Cantigny, and Belleau Wood mean nothing, except perhaps assuming they are places in France.
As a result, I was surprised, and yet not surprised, while reading First Over There: The Attack on Cantigny, America’s First Battle of World War I by Matthew J. Davenport, to discover a major commemorative event celebrated in the United States that is now a footnote in history. Davenport even says that “[t]hrough the 1920s and ’30s, ‘Cantigny’ remained a symbol of American sacrifice and triumph, a uniting emblem that finally exorcised the dividing demons of the Civil War in a way the Spanish-American War never could. But then came Pearl Harbor. And D-Day. And the Bulge. And in the wake of these epochal events, the 1st Division’s attack at Cantigny lapsed into footnotes, its story left to slumber for a century.” 1
Though the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, the American Expeditionary Force didn’t see real action until late spring of 1918: May 1918, to be more exact, and the Battle of Cantigny to be more precise. Arthur Wilson Page describes the significance of the battle:
The trial was at Cantigny. It was, naturally, planned some time in advance, but in the march of events a thing happened the day before the Cantigny attack which more than ever made the demonstration of American fighting ability necessary. Our attack was to begin on the morning of May 28th. On the morning of May 27th, a great mass of German troops suddenly pushed across the Ailette, up over the strong position of the Chemin des Dames, and before the day was over the French lines were completely broken, and the Germans had crossed the Vesle on their way south to the Marne. The communiques that reached Paris on the night of the 28th told of the rapid and continuous German progress. But there came also that night another piece of news. The American Army had at last actively entered the war. The 1st Division shed a bright little ray of light on the otherwise dismal picture. And this ray of light was of great significance, for if the Americans could successfully meet the Germans, the Allies were assured an effective force big enough to win the war—the Americans were then arriving at the rate of 250,000 a month. If the Americans could not successfully meet the Germans, then, well, the situation was very bad indeed.2
The 1st Division of the AEF captured Cantigny and ably defended itself against German counterattacks, thus proving that the Americans could hold their own weight.
News of the AEF’s first successful action in the Great War filled the newspapers back home, and after the war, as Davenport stated, “Cantigny Day” was celebrated alongside Memorial Day during the 1920s and 1930s. So as you’re commemorating the veterans of America’s wars on Monday, don’t forget to think about the 1st Division on May 28th! If you’re in the Chicago area, stop by the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park, which was founded to commemorate the division by Colonel Robert R. McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, who fought with the division in the First World War.
Matthew J. Davenport 2015. First Over There: The Attack on Cantigny, America’s First Battle of World War I. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 13. ↩
Arthur Wilson Page. 1920. Our 110 Days’ Fighting. New York: Doubleday, Page, & Co., 20 ↩
by Evangeline Holland
[The WAACs] look after the gallant dead, who are lying in the soil for which they fought. Between the pines and the gleaming river with its sandy shoals are the rows of crosses, sparkling, the ash grey wood of them, in the effulgence of the spring light, making hundreds of points of brightness above the earth still brown and bare, that soon, under the gardeners’ care, will blossom like the rose. Not a desert even now—for no place where fighters rest is a desert—but a place expectant, full of the promise of beauty to come, an outward beauty which is what it calls for as its right, because it is holy ground. Not only in the merely technical sense as the consecrated earth of quiet English cemeteries, where lie all, both those who lived well and those who lived basely, but holy as a place can only be when it is held by those who all died perfectly . . .
Here and there, among the earth-brown graves, stooping above them, are the earth-brown figures of the gardeners. Every grave is freshly raked, moulded between wooden frames to a flat, high surface where the flowers are to overflow, and above every raised dais of earth the bleached wood of the cross spreads its arms, throwing a shadow soft and blue like a dove’s feather, a shadow that curves over the mound and laps down its edge lightly as a benison. On each cross is the little white metal plate giving the name and regiment of the man who lies beneath and the letters R.I.P. Here and there is an ugly stiff wreath of artificial immortelles beneath a glass frame, the pathetic offering of those who came from England to lay it there.
Sometimes a wreath fresh and green shows that someone who loves the dead man has sent money with a request that flowers shall be bought and put upon his grave on the anniversary of his death. Sometimes, when they come over from England, these poor people break down and turn blindly, as people will for comfort, to the nearest sympathy, to the women gardeners who are showing them the grave they came to see. And a sudden note of that deep undercurrent which at times of stress always turns the members of either sex to their own sex for comfort sends the women mourners to the arms of the women who are working beside them. Sentiment, if you will—but a sentiment that is stirred up from the deep and which would scorn the apologies of the critical.
— The Sword of Deborah: First-hand Impressions of the British Women’s Army in France by F. Tennyson Jesse (1919)
The war brought many a great funeral ceremony to England and France, but the whole world’s history had never witnessed such a funeral as that which each of these two countries held on Nov. 11, 1920.
The second anniversary of Armistice Day had come and each nation had elected, as the most solemn consecration for that day, to inter with the highest honors of war the body of an unknown soldier who had fallen on the battlefields of France.
The unknown British soldier, to whom these honors were paid in remembrance of Britain’s 700,000 dead, was taken from his burial place in one of the battle sectors of France and transported to Boulogne. All the population of the little seaport town lined the streets to pay France’s tribute as the body was transported from the citadel, where it had lain all night, to the British destroyer Verdun, which carried it to England.
All the church bells were tolled, but the flags fluttering at the pinnacle of the masts showed that the occasion was not one of mourning but of glorification. Standing beside the coffin on the quay Marshal Foch, who had made a special pilgrimage to Boulogne as the representative of the French Government, lauded in eloquent words the tremendous effort of the British soldiers who brought to the aid of France their valor, endurance and abnegation.
Turning to the bier on which lay the unknown British warrior, the Marshal said: “It is before him that I can best express my profound feelings of thanks and admiration.
“French women and children laid wreaths and flowers on the bier while the French troops stood at salute and a military band played the ” Marseillaise.” The coffin was carried on board. Escorted by French and British destroyers, the Verdun then steamed slowly through the thick mist out of the harbor. So the unknown British soldier who had crossed the Channel so full of life and heroic ardor left France forever, long months after he had been plunged into the sleep of the war’s great martyrs beneath French soil.
A solemn ceremonial took place at Victoria Station in London, where the bier arrived in the same railway car in which had been transported the last remains of Miss Cavell and Captain Fryatt of glorious memory.
Armistice Day dawned. With honors and devotion beyond those paid to Kings, the nameless soldier was buried in Westminster Abbey. The streets of London, from Victoria Station to the Abbey, were black with thousands on thousands of moved spectators. The bier was brought in procession from the station. Covered with its tattered Union Jack, the coffin was borne on the shoulders of ten men and deposited on the gun-carriage which was to bring the body to its last resting place. The guard presented arms.
The great personages who to the unknown soldier had been almost legendary figures —Admirals and Generals, six on each side—stood at salute as the bier passed to the black gun-van, which was decorated with palms and purple ribbons “and overflowing with flowers. The cortege started. The horses moved slowly, drawing the van to the station exit, while the deep minor chords of Chopin’s Funeral March resounded solemnly.
Up by Constitution Hill, through the long Mall and the Admiralty Arch, then sharply turning off to the right, the cortege passed into Whitehall. Just beyond Downing Street, politically famous, rose against the gray of the sky the flag-swathed cenotaph designed by Sir Edward Lutyens as a permanent memorial. The throng around this cenotaph was like a human sea. All the high dignitaries of the British Government and the British Empire were here to greet the obscure and humble soldier who had paid the supreme price to preserve the world’s liberty.
With the King at their head, all turned to face the sable van on which the unknown soldier lay. All the royal family were here, the Cabinet Ministers, members of the first War Cabinet, dignitaries from India and the Dominions. The designer of the great cenotaph stood near in another company of officials. The pavement was bordered with flowers awaiting the unveiling of the cenotaph. The bier advanced to the pulsations of the Dead March in ” Saul.” The pale London sun, glinting on the brass instruments of the marching band, picked out here and there a gleaming sword.
The pallbearers, including Admiral Beatty, Marshal French, Lord Haig, General Byng and others of renown, fell into a line at the north. The music stopped. There came a hush.
The King stepped forward with a wreath and placed it on the coffin beside the steel helmet. The choir sang a canticle. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s voice rose, reciting the Lord’s Prayer. The King touched a lever; the two great Union Jacks fell apart, settling in two colored masses at the cenotaph’s base. Naked and beautiful, the great shaft of the cenotaph, pale lemon against the sun-shot mist, stood revealed.
The silence was broken by the booming of a great bell, while all uncovered. The cortege passed on. Then the official groups broke up and the waiting throngs surged forward to lay their flowers on the cenotaph, which soon was banked with a dense garden of brilliant blooms. Maimed and blinded soldiers passed on in six green motor coaches. Women dressed in black, bearing their tributes to the Abbey, were brought by the police into the main road, which now bloomed whitely with moving flowers against the black streams of humanity in front and behind.
The vast and quiet spaces of Westminster Abbey, plunged in a religious gloom shot through by candlelight and gleams from the big stained windows, offered the unknown soldier ultimate repose. The noble lines of the great cathedral swept upward to the dim crown of lights high in the apse. A thousand women in black, a hundred V. C.’s, waited with flowers and wreaths. A bell was tolling softly. There was a vision of color and lights about the high altar. Down the long church stole soft, flute-like music. The choir members, in white and scarlet, moved up the nave into the choir, headed by the dean in his mourning cope. Strangely sweet and wistful sounded their song: O valiant hearts who to your glory came Through dust of conflict and through battle flame!
The precentor intoned the Lord’s Prayer. The bell tolled 11. Then, as the guns ceased booming, the whole British Empire, from London to India and farthest Australia, stood silent and motionless for two minutes while the cortege entered the vast and shadowy nave of Westminster Abbey. The funeral march grew louder as the procession advanced, headed by the choir singing “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” Down the long aisle the pallbearers bore the coffin, with its steel helmet and its laurel wreath. The King, the high statesmen and other officials took their appointed places. The ritual of burial lasted but a few moments. The Twenty-third Psalm was read, telling of those who have come through “the great tribulation.”
Amidst the solemn harmonies of “Lead, Kindly Light,” the Guardsmen lowered the unknown soldier into the grave prepared for him below the great stone flags. “The night is gone” ended the solemn hymn.
The King cast some of the soil of France from a silver shell upon the coffin below. One last hymn resounded. Then came the roll of drums, followed by the clear call of the reveille. The King’s wreath lay at the foot of the grave, where visitors to Westminster Abbey henceforth may read the carved inscription: “A British Warrior, Who Fell in the Great War, 1914-1918, for King and Country.”
The crowd surged forward for one last glance and strewed the purple carpet with white and red flowers. Some of the blackrobed women were weeping. Perhaps that silent, unknown warrior, glorified in death by a whole nation, had been the son of one of them. Who knew?
In Westminster the grave of the unknown warrior was left open for one week, and every day an almost continuous line of people filed through the nave to see the coffin that contained the body which had become a memorial to all the British dead. Even when the time came to close the grave on the 18th there were hundreds in line who could not get through.
At the very last moment a lady came to the deanery with a maple leaf from Canada, sent by a soldier who had earned the Victoria Cross at Lucknow. She asked that it be placed in the coffin, and her wish was carried out. Then, after a pause for the completion of an organ recital, the grave was filled with soil that had been brought for the purpose from the battlefields of France and Flanders.