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Bodies of War

World War I and the Politics of Commemoration in America, 1919-1933

Lisa Budreau

Publication Year: 2010

The United States lost thousands of troops during World War I, and the government gave next-of-kin a choice about what to do with their fallen loved ones: ship them home for burial or leave them permanently in Europe, in makeshift graves that would be eventually transformed into cemeteries in France, Belgium, and England. World War I marked the first war in which the United States government and military took full responsibility for the identification, burial, and memorialization of those killed in battle, and as a result, the process of burying and remembering the dead became intensely political. The government and military attempted to create a patriotic consensus on the historical memory of World War I in which war dead were not only honored but used as a symbol to legitimize America's participation in a war not fully supported by all citizens.

The saga of American soldiers killed in World War I and the efforts of the living to honor them is a neglected component of United States military history, and in this fascinating yet often macabre account, Lisa M. Budreau unpacks the politics and processes of the competing interest groups involved in the three core components of commemoration: repatriation, remembrance, and return. She also describes how relatives of the fallen made pilgrimages to French battlefields, attended largely by American Legionnaires and the Gold Star Mothers, a group formed by mothers of sons killed in World War I, which exists to this day. Throughout, and with sensitivity to issues of race and gender, Bodies of War emphasizes the inherent tensions in the politics of memorialization and explores how those interests often conflicted with the needs of veterans and relatives.

Published by: NYU Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. xi-xii

In September 2001, I crossed the Channel from France to England after participating in a First World War battlefield tour that I researched and coordinated for the Smithsonian Institution. In those frantic, fearful days just after 9/11, more than twenty Americans still managed to join us in Paris where the French warmly welcomed our group as we made our way...

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pp. xiii-xvi

With humility, I recognize the enormous debt I owe to all those who contributed to the completion of Bodies of War. I begin by thanking Jay Winter for being so receptive to my original research plans and for his guidance, which ultimately led me to Oxford University. It was...


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pp. xvii


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pp. xviii

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pp. 1-10

The years immediately following the armistice in the United States have generally been characterized by massive labor unrest, cultural and class tension, ethnic turmoil, isolationist tendencies, nativism, and racial prejudice—forces that dominated public concern and threatened the...

Part I. Repatriation

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1. The Journey’s End

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pp. 13-17

On a warm morning in late May 1933, Mrs. Estella Kendall of Shenandoah, Iowa, walked anxiously through the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in northern France. Many summers had passed since that day in 1918 when she first learned of her son’s death: as a member of the 168th Infantry, 42nd Division, First Sergeant Harry N. Kendall had been...

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2. Origins

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pp. 18-21

After more than ninety years, the First World War still evokes gruesome images of No Man’s Land, where bodies lie dead or slowly dying amid the chaos of battle as machine-gun bullets crackle and whiz across the parapets of mud-filled trenches. We think of the Western Front, a hellish...

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3. A Daunting Pledge

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pp. 22-26

Although the guns were silenced in November, the months following the signing of the armistice in 1918 brought an increased awareness of the extent of death and destruction caused by the war. Nowhere was this devastation more apparent than across the Western Front, in Belgium and northern...

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4. Charon’s Price

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pp. 27-36

On February 15, 1898, a massive explosion shattered the American battleship Maine in Havana Harbor, killing 260 men. Although the exact cause was unknown, the sinking was widely attributed to deliberate sabotage by Spain. By April 1898, Republican president William McKinley...

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5. A Problem of Policy

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pp. 37-50

No nation was ready for the devastation of the First World War, but in the aftermath of slaughter, each remained accountable for its dead. The United States was equally unprepared for a war of such magnitude and distance, despite the brevity of America’s overseas encounter...

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6. Make Way for Democracy!

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pp. 51-62

Americans were appalled that the French would disapprove of the immediate and complete removal of bodies from all regions. Newspaper editorials and congressional debates reflected the indignant spirit of impatience, such as that of Representative Clement C. Dickinson of Missouri, who addressed the House: “The French Government will not...

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7. Troubled Waters

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pp. 63-72

Immigrant soldiers played a key role in the American military force that went to war in 1917, especially since no legal provision forbade the voluntary enlistment of registered aliens from enemy nations. Tens of thousands of the citizens and subjects of other countries joined up, an appreciable...

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8. Bringing Them Home

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pp. 73-81

The year 1920 brought increased impatience and renewed attempts by Congress to flex its political muscle. In February, Charles Pierce was called to testify before a House expenditures subcommittee, where, as chief of the GRS, he struggled to justify delays abroad in response...

Part II. Remembrance

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9. Republican Motherhood Thrives

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pp. 85-94

On a rainy November in 1917 three Americans serving with the U.S. 1st Division were brutally murdered in their dugouts during a German raid within a supposedly quiet sector east of Verdun. That night, Private Thomas Enright, Private Merle Hay, and Corporal James Gresham became the first U.S. Army combat fatalities in the war...

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10. A Star of Recognition

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pp. 95-99

Within days of the St. Mihiel Salient deaths in eastern France, a women’s movement to abolish traditional black mourning dress was launched on the editorial pages of the American press. It began when Mrs. Louise D. Bowen, the chairman of Chicago’s Women’s Committee of...

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11. A Reluctant Giant

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pp. 100-106

On November 11, 1921, the United States followed the example set by France and Great Britain when it laid the body of an unidentified soldier to rest at Arlington National Cemetery and designated it the “Unknown Soldier.”1 The body had been chosen amidst elaborate ceremony in...

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12. A Commission Is Born

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pp. 107-112

Suggestions as to how the nation might best remember its heroes were not publicly solicited after the war, but that did not prevent Colonel Webb C. Hayes, son of former president Rutherford B. Hayes and the chairman of the Cuba-China Battlefield Commission, from sharing...

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13. Sacred Space and Strife

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pp. 113-128

Within weeks of the ABMC’s founding, the secretary of war relinquished chairmanship over the new commission and named General Pershing in his place. The intention may have been at least partially calculated to foster public support by separating the agency from the War...

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14. We the People

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pp. 129-147

By the latter half of 1920, net alien arrivals into the United States averaged fifty-two thousand a month, and “by February 1921, the jam at Ellis Island had become so great that immigration authorities were hastily diverting New York–bound ships to Boston.”1 This massive influx of immigrants collided with a wave of unemployment...

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15. Americans Make Waves

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pp. 148-163

By 1925, the ABMC had radically altered Pershing’s original scheme for memorialization because the project handed to them was, they insisted, unsuitable. “There are too many monuments,” members complained after returning from their overseas inspection of the Allied cemeteries.1 Moreover...

Part III. Return

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16. A Country for Heroes?

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pp. 167-171

Organizers of the 1927 American Legion excursion billed it “the occasion of a great and solemn pilgrimage” and expected participants to arrive in vast numbers.1 Special rates were offered to all 713,000 veterans and their auxiliary members, who numbered nearly 300,000....

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17. Pilgrim or Tourist?

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pp. 172-175

In the years immediately following the First World War, the ground over which visitors journeyed still reflected unprecedented carnage and devastation previously unknown in warfare. David Lloyd describes one traveler’s testimony upon seeing the battlefield for the first time: “We could barely conceive how thoroughly the agents of deat...

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18. Commemoration or Celebration?

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pp. 176-184

Originally, the “Second AEF,” as it was termed, was scheduled to set sail on the tenth anniversary of the signing of the armistice, but months after the American Legion confirmed its plans, French officials were informed that the convention had been rescheduled. It seems that...

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19. Pilgrims’ Progress

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pp. 185-191

On May 6, 1930, the SS America prepared to steam out of Hoboken, New Jersey, with 231 women onboard, all guests of the U.S. government. The Ziegfeld chorus girls had sent a large wreath in honor of the mothers’ departure, and airplanes flew overhead dropping poppies onto...

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20. Mothers and Politics

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pp. 192-197

It was certainly an advantage that the nation’s largest and most highly publicized pilgrimage of 1927 was organized by the American Legion, since the U.S. government would most likely have reacted with indifference toward any other organization lacking its official endorsement. Several years prior, when the Legion made its first public mention of a movement...

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21. Mathilda’s Victory

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pp. 198-208

In 1928, Congressman Thomas S. Butler, a representative from Pennsylvania, placed the familiar Gold Star pilgrimage legislation before the 70th Congress once more, when he reintroduced the bill to the Committee on Military Affairs.1 Chairman John M. Morin, another Pennsylvanian, presided...

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22. Stars of Black and Gold

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pp. 209-217

When the 71st Congress (1929–1931) opened on April 15, 1929, Oscar S. De Priest, a newly elected Republican from Illinois, prepared to take his seat. With the press and many African Americans looking on from the segregated visitors gallery, De Priest took the oath of office. He...

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23. Highballs on the High Seas

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pp. 218-229

Where the welfare and comfort of the Gold Star mothers and widows were concerned, the army overlooked nothing to ensure the success of its high-profile public-relations venture. For the military escorts, the moments before sailing were fraught with detail. On the morning of departure, officers were responsible for inspecting all equipment,...

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24. A Personal Experience

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pp. 230-241

The Gold Star pilgrimages were paraded before the world in a colorful array of guises and pretexts that included heartfelt images of democratic solidarity, American homogeneity, a peace mission, and a gesture from a grateful nation. But behind this public façade, shades of hypocrisy,...

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pp. 242-245

“What will be thought of the great adventure of the War Department in returning thousands of dead to the United States in fifty years or a century from now . . . is impossible to say,” mused Colonel Harry F. Rethers, chief of the Paris office of the Graves Registration Service in 1920....


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pp. 247-291

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 293-304


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pp. 305-315

About the Author

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pp. 317

E-ISBN-13: 9780814789803
E-ISBN-10: 0814789803
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814799901
Print-ISBN-10: 0814799906

Page Count: 336
Publication Year: 2010

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • World War, 1914-1918 -- Monuments -- United States.
  • War memorials -- Political aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • War memorials -- Social aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1918-1933.
  • United States -- Social conditions -- 1918-1932.
  • Political culture -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • World War, 1914-1918 -- Social aspects -- United States.
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