Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Remembering the Great War

by Paul Herbert, Executive Director, First Division Museum at Cantigny Park

This summer, the United States is observing the centennial of World War I. Late to the war in 1917, the fledging American Expeditionary Forces needed a year before any were combat ready. The first American battle was fought by the US First Division at Cantigny, 75 miles north of Paris, from May 28-31, 1918. As it unfolded, the Germans attacked along the Marne River and nearly reached Paris. However, the US 3d Division entered the fray at Chateau-Thierry. Immediately to the north, the US 2d Division with its brigade of Marines did likewise at Belleau Wood. With the Germans halted, the Allies went over to the counter-attack, not stopping until the Germans agreed to an Armistice on November 11, 1918. At Soisson and St. Mihiel, American doughboys made the critical difference. From September 26, 1918, to the Armistice, the United States fought its largest battle ever, between the Meuse River and the Argonne Forest in Lorraine. If all the 320,000 US casualties of the Great War were assigned to these five bloody months, they would amount to 2,000 Americans killed, wounded, missing or dead of disease, every day.


1st Inf. Division Color Guard: Cantigny, France 2018


Why such sacrifice? Because America sought to make the world safe for democracy. President Woodrow Wilson realized that a Europe under Imperial Germany must always be a threat to the United States and so, reluctantly, asked Congress to intervene in the war. Afterwards, the US withdrew from European affairs, only to return in a much bloodier and more dangerous Second World War. Since then, the United States led the NATO Alliance that defended democratic Europe for 50 years of Cold War and 30 years and counting of common security concerns. Alliance soldiers have served alongside Americans in the Balkans, north Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, eastern Europe and countless other places. Their service has secured a world order in which many nations, including the United States, are largely safe to pursue democracy and demagogues and terrorists do not rule. That is a fitting legacy of those brave doughboys of a century ago and an inheritance we dare not squander.


See more photos from WWI Centennial events in Cantigny, France

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