“Time will not dim the glory of their deeds.” So said General John “Black Jack” Pershing about the Americans who died fighting in the First World War, but based on what I have seen of America's World War I cemeteries in France, we Americans are on the verge of proving Pershing wrong.
Nobody goes to the cemeteries containing America's Great War dead. Okay, nobody is a bit strong, but I suspect that the World War II cemetery at Normandy gets more American visitors in a week than the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery gets in a year. And if you think it's due to the fact that World War II was more recent, Gettysburg probably has more people visiting in a day than visit any of the WWI cemeteries annually.
I know, I know. Gettysburg is in America. It's easy to get to, so the comparison isn't valid. And Normandy is popular because World War II is more recent. It was within the living memory of many Americans. There are veterans of the war still living.
Yet, there is more to the loneliness at the WWI cemeteries than the years that have passed or the distance from America's shores.
More than 3 million Americans find their way to France annually and a large chunk of those find their way to Normandy. More than a million people visit the Normandy American Cemetery each year, and although that number includes a large number of British, French and others, it also includes tens of thousands of Americans or more. Americans know about D-Day and, therefore, they make the 3 hour journey from Paris.
WWI just doesn't figure in America's consciousness in the way that the Civil War and WWII do. Americans know little about the war – it's not part of the national consciousness – and, therefore, few Americans go to the Meuse-Argonne area near Verdun in eastern France.
Virtually no Americans know about the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne, the “deadliest battle in American history.” More than 26,000 Americans died in the battle, 14,000 of whom are buried in the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery.
Yes, those numbers are right. The biggest American cemetery in Europe is the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery, not Normandy. Who knows this? Not many. Who goes to visit? Not many. Who cares? Not many.
One hour south from the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery is the St Mihiel American Cemetery. Another 5,000 dead Americans. An hour and a half to the west – less than 90 minutes from Paris – are two cemeteries near Chateau Thierry. Another 9,000 dead Americans. An hour north of Meuse-Argonne – the Somme American Cemetery and just under 2,000 more American graves. If you added up all the American visits in a year to those cemeteries would they equal a two week total at Normandy? Unlikely.
Of course it's unreasonable to expect the numbers who visit the WWI cemeteries to match those who visit Normandy, but there are some things that could be done to raise awareness of the war among Americans and increase the numbers visiting the cemeteries.
First, all the federal and state records from the war should be freely available online. That would encourage genealogically keen Americans to learn about their great-uncle's role in the war or even those who are named on the local war memorial.
Next, build a proper visitors center at the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery or one of the cemeteries nearer Paris at Chateau Thierry. Normandy (rightly) has an informative museum and visitors center to help people understand what happened there. None of the WWI cemeteries has anything like it. They all have buildings called visitors centers, but other than to use the bathrooms I doubt many people venture in. There is no reason to - the centers have virtually no information. They all look so untouched. The Meuse-Argonne Cemetery's visitors center is at such a remove from the graves that I suspect most people who do visit are unaware of it.
The American Battle Monuments Commission is responsible for maintaining the cemeteries and they do a great job of that, but they need to do a better job of getting people to visit. Their annual report talks only about money. Do they measure visitor numbers? Do they set goals for visitors? If yes, are they achieving those goals at the WWI cemeteries?
The ABMC web site mentions the million visitors per annum who visit the Normandy American Cemetery, but there are no statistics on how many visit the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery, etc. I can only assume that's because the numbers are embarrassingly small.
Someone needs to take the bull by the horns to drive up visitor numbers. The First World War's centennial is upon us and America might well end up as the only combatant nation basically ignoring the anniversaries. Now is the time to fix this because time is most certainly dimming the glory of the deeds of the Doughboys buried in French soil.