Why World War I Matters for Your Agency

I recently asked some friends—a group of intelligent, successful individuals—what they knew about World War I. The responses I received included, “Ummm…..it was in the 1910s?” or “Started in Europe when the archduke was killed?” Beyond this, it’s mostly blank stares and shoulder shrugs. People who consider themselves history geeks might mention President Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points, or the creation of the League of Nations, but for many Americans, World War I is a forgotten war. It happened thousands of miles away, unlike the battles of the Civil War, and It was too long ago for most Americans to have known a person that served, unlike veterans of World War II.

Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery is the largest, overseas, American military cemetery from World War I. More than 14,000 Americans rest with these hallowed grounds.

Despite these inherent challenges, the role of World War I as part of our nation’s history needs to be communicated to the public. The decisions and actions carried out nearly a century ago still reverberate today in our country. And April 2017 will mark the 100th anniversary of the United States’ involvement in this global conflict. At the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC), where we manage eight overseas American military cemeteries from World War I, we’re preparing our stories now so we’re ready when the centennial begins. And now is the time for you to start thinking about how you can share your agency’s mission through the lens of this war.

Here’s a very brief timeline of World War I, or visit the ABMC website for a more in-depth version.

June 1914: Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, is assassinated. Soon after, war breaks out in Europe.

1914-April 1917: Millions of lives are lost on both sides of the conflict, essentially wiping out a generation of men from many countries, including the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.

April 6, 1917: In reaction to German resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, which results in the loss of American lives, the United States officially enters the war.

September 26, 1918: The Meuse-Argonne Offensive begins in northeastern France. Considered one of the largest battles in U.S. military history, the American Army forces the Germans to withdraw from entrenched positions, and eventually to negotiate for an armistice.

November 11, 1918: An armistice goes into effect at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. This officially marks the cessation of hostilities, although the peace treaty would not be signed until the following year. The American entry into the war shifted the balance of power, leading to the defeat of Germany and its Allies. (Originally, November 11th marked the anniversary of the Armistice not just for the United States, but for other western European nations that lived through the Great War. The date still commemorates the end of World War I as Armistice Day in western Europe, but in the United States, November 11th is now known as Veterans Day to honor all who have served. This shift happened in the 1950s after the number of veterans in our country increased dramatically because of World War II and the Korean War.)

World War I By the Numbers:

  • More than 4 million: The number of Americans that served.
  • More than 100,000: The number of Americans that lost their lives
  • $1,000,000: The cost of the war per hour from April 1917 to May 1919.
  • World War I had a profound effect on many aspects of American society, including international relations, science and technology, music, gender roles, and race relations, among others. Many agencies in the federal government can find some connection to the Great War, but it may take a little creative thinking. Here are some topics to get you started:

    Gender Roles: The U.S. Navy established the rank of Yeoman (F) in the Naval Reserve, which allowed women to enlist in the Armed Forces, for the first time in American military history. Overseas, more than 16,000 American women served during the war in both official military capacities, and in dozens of civilian volunteer organizations such as the YMCA, the YWCA, and the Salvation Army. This represented a watershed moment for American women as they took on new roles outside of the home, professionalized their traditional volunteer activities into careers, and entered the workforce in greater numbers.

    Technology: Soldiers rode into battle on horses as airplanes flew overhead. They clutched bayonets while dodging machine gun fire. Army couriers pedaled bicycles past tanks that weighed six tons. World War I marked the advent of new military tools reflecting cutting edge technology, including tanks. Other weapons, such as aircraft and machine guns, were used on a large scale for the first time.

    Race: Soldiers of the 92nd and 93rd divisions lived segregated lives both in and out of war. These all-black units, which served under mostly white officers, readily took up arms with their fellow Americans hopeful that their patriotism and service would lead to better treatment at home. Despite their bravery, little changed in terms of race relations after the war.

    Commemoration and Memory: Female relatives who had lost a son or husband referred to themselves as Gold Star mothers and widows, and created several national organizations for collective mourning and support.

    These are just a few examples of how World War I transformed the fabric of our nation. Reach out to your agency’s history office, and see how you can incorporate this war into your communication planning. Consider joining our WWI-focused social media group for resources, suggestions, or support for producing content. Email me to join.

    _About the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC):

    ABMC is a U.S. government agency charged with commemorating the service, achievements and sacrifice of the U.S. armed forces. Established by Congress in 1923, ABMC administers, operates, and maintains 25 permanent American military cemeteries and 27 federal memorials, monuments and markers located across the globe. These cemeteries and memorials, most of which commemorate the service and sacrifice of Americans who served in World War I and World War II, are among the most beautiful and meticulously maintained shrines in the world. For more information, visit www.abmc.gov, or connect with us on Facebook, YouTube, or Instagram._ This is the first of a 3-part series from ABMC—the others are:

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