The Case of World War I Part II

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Read the first part of this two-part series.

In his “A Report to the Secretary of War on American Military Dead Overseas” in May of 1920, Ralph Hayes describes the increasingly hostile battle over the repatriation of the remains of the fallen. There were two main arguments used by those who favored keeping American military dead in cemeteries overseas. First, the practical situation in France was such that transportation of remains was particularly difficult. It was seen as unsympathetic to inhabitants recovering from the devastation of the war to run funeral trains through the country, transportation lines were anyway compromised, and furthermore the work of transporting the remains was work that was gruesome to an extent “insufficiently appreciated by those who demand it,” Hayes writes.

The second argument used by those who favored American cemeteries in France was that reverence for the military dead compelled American families to offer a “second sacrifice” for the good of the nation. Just as the soldiers had fought for a good cause, now their bodies would offer a reminder of America’s contribution to saving the world. The new military cemeteries were designated “Fields of Honor” by a coalition of people that included former presidents, military officers, labor leaders, and chaplains, and for those families willing to make the sacrifice, they enhanced the status of the dead who rested there.

Those who supported the “Fields of Honor” attempted to persuade families that their dead were better off their, cared for by the local authorities in France and by the American military. General Pershing sent a cable to the War Department after the fighting ended which stated his imagining of the wishes of the dead soldiers, as Gary Laderman quotes: “Could these soldiers speak for themselves, they would wish to be left undisturbed, where with their comrades they had fought their last fight…The graves of our soldiers constitute, if they are allowed to remain, a perpetual reminder to our Allies of the liberty and ideals upon which the greatness of America rests.”

Pershing and others, Laderman says, failed to mention that it fell to black soldiers to do the work of preparing these “Fields of Honor”; they had to scour the battlefields for corpses, dig up buried bodies, and re-bury them in the sacred places; supporters did not say who did the work but were vehement about who they did not want to do it: profit-minded undertakers.

According to Hayes, many believed that it was these undertakers who were behind the call to repatriate the remains; they wanted to make a profit on coffins and funeral services for the war dead. There was, Hayes acknowledged, insufficient evidence to prove this, though a certain “group of embalmers” advertised their services in leaflets, these efforts repudiated by the reputable association of undertakers. Still, opponents of repatriation were outraged at the involvement of undertakers in the conversation about the war dead, accusing them of placing capitalism above nationalism.

But the public, along with funeral directors, was in favor of repatriation. In 1919, a national organization called the “Bring Back the Dead League” was formed to fight for the return of fallen soldiers and make sure the remains were in the control of the families. The arguments against overseas cemeteries were several. Bringing back the dead was traditional military policy, first, and the policy stated at the outset of the war. Also, leaving the dead overseas meant families couldn’t easily make pilgrimages to their graves. The protection of the “Fields of Honor” might lead to further wars. Some didn’t trust the French to take care of the graves. And in contradiction to Pershing’s imagining, many felt soldiers did not want to remain where they were fallen, but looked homeward at the time of death.

Despite strong public support for repatriation, the funeral industry found it necessary to publish many protestations of their innocence of the charge of trying to manipulate the public to turn a profit. In one such publication, The Casket, a writer protests: “Are We Not All Living Under The Capitalist System Whose Chief End Is Profit — Has Not Our Government Said Over and Over, That It Is the Business of Businessmen To Make Profit — Is the Undertaker Alone Excluded?” The United States could have given the world a lesson in the humane treatment of its dead, had it brought the dead home immediately after the war, the writer felt. The families were willing to pay, so what was wrong with it?

The same edition of The Casket printed a letter from a mother who had waited one year and six months for the return of her son’s remains. The mother accuses the government of betrayal for not making good on their vow to bring the dead home.

In the end, the majority of the American military dead were returned to the United States. Though overseas cemeteries were established for the remainder, in symbolic value these were overshadowed by The Unknown Soldier, laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery, and serving as a focal point for the grief of those whose lost loved ones had not been returned. Civilian funeral specialists were finally called upon to assist in the process of identifying and shipping the bodies home — the same people who had called themselves the Purple Cross, whose services were refused at the beginning of the war. The funeral industry was redeemed, but it would continue to be haunted in the future by charges of corruption, deception, and profiteering.

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