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World War I Centennial News


Commissioner Seefried awarded France's Legion d'Honneur

By Chris Isleib
Public Affairs Officer, World War One Centennial Commission

monique brouillet 200 1WASHINGTON, DC: Commissioner Monique Seefried of the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission was decorated as a Chevalier of France's Legion d'Honneur by France's Ambassador to the United States, Gérard Araud, at the embassy residence on January 13th.

The award, bestowed by the President of the French Republic, François Hollande, upon recommendation of the French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, was awarded to her for her long career in education and her work on commemorating the sacrifices of American soldiers in France during World War I.

Legion of Honor 200The Legion d'Honneur is France's highest order of distinction. There are five levels to the national order, with France's president traditionally holding the highest level. The Chevalier, or Knight, level is the inaugural level. The Legion d'Honneur was created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802.

Commissioner Seefried, a U.S. citizen born in Tunisia, has served with the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission since 2014, and beyond her work with education and state programs, she is the lead for international partnerships. She was responsible for the recently signed bi-lateral agreement between the United States Commission and the French Mission du Centenaire.

During her tenure, she has been involved with outreach to such organizations as the U.S. Department of Education, the History Channel, the International Baccalaureate organization, and others. She has previously been inducted into France's National Order of Merit and the Order of the Academic Palms.

Commission selects "Weight of Sacrifice" design concept for WWI Memorial in DC

The Weight of Sacrifice 440 presspacket aerialBy Chris Isleib
Public Affairs Officer, World War One Centennial Commission

WASHINGTON, DC -- The U.S. World War I Centennial Commission has picked 'THE WEIGHT OF SACRIFICE" for the new national World War I Memorial project.

"THE WEIGHT OF SACRIFICE" was selected from a group of five Finalists, and culminates an open, international design competition that has run since May, 2015. The Commission's decision endorses the recommendation of the design competition's independent jury.

“We were thrilled by the quality and creativity by all the submissions in this competition” stated Commissioner Edwin Fountain, who directed the competition. “This selected design concept reflects a high level of professional achievement”.

Imagery of "THE WEIGHT OF SACRIFICE", and of the other four Finalists, can be found here: www.ww1cc.org/selection

The design concept was submitted by Joseph Weishaar, an architect-in-training currently located in Chicago, IL, and collaborating artist, veteran sculptor Sabin Howard, of New York, NY. Mr. Weishaar, received his professional architecture degree at the University of Arkansas in 2013.

Mr. Weishar's full professional team, necessary to implement the design concept, includes the Baltimore architectural firm GWWO, Inc;, landscape architect Phoebe Lickwar; and engineering consultants Henry Adams LLC, Keast & Hood and VBH.


Read more: Commission Selects "Weight of Sacrifice" for DC Memorial

Architect and Sculptor, Architecture and Sculpture come together for World War One Memorial

Mike Williams
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON, DC -- On January 26, the World War One Centennial Commission was proud to announce that The Weight of Sacrifice had been selected as the design concept of the new World War One Memorial in Washington, DC. An elegantly simple yet bold vision for a living memorial as a public park, The Weight of Sacrifice was formed through an unlikely partnership between a novice architect and an experienced sculptor. Unlike other works, where sculpture acts only to adorn the facade of a building, the design incorporates sculpture as foundational to the architecture of the space—a relationship where both form and artist are enhanced by the other medium.

Joe Weishaar and Sabin Howard talk at the Pershing Park siteJoe Weishaar, the 25 year old architect for the new memorial, was working as an intern at an architecture firm in Chicago when he heard about the open design competition hosted by the World War One Centennial Commission. “It was a very modern firm, and I knew that they wouldn’t want to have any part of this,” Joe recalled. Undeterred, Joe began running a covert design operation in the most unlikely of places: his bedroom closet. “That became my office for about four months while I worked on the original design.” Cramped spaces and dirty laundry, however, weren’t the only difficulties Joe had to contend with. Joe had never been to Washington DC when he began designing what will become the newest addition to a city resplendent with memorials and iconic sites.

“Google, Bing, old historic photographs, pictures from the 1960’s, the 1920’s, newscasts at the site, just trying to get as many visual clues as I could of the site” Joe remembers with a laugh, “and I think that looking at older photographs of DC played into helping create something that had a timeless quality to it.” Joe’s design, The Weight of Sacrifice, called for an elevated park to replace the sunken concrete pit currently in Pershing Park, a leafy open space for visitors to enjoy. That park would then be supported and framed by bronze reliefs depicting scenes from the war, an allusion to the great sacrifice that provides for peaceful public space to exist.

(Imagery of and information about The Weight of Sacrifice can be found here: http://www.ww1cc.org/selection)

In the first round of competition, The Weight of Sacrifice was just one of over 360 designs submitted. “I was totally shocked when I got the call that I had been shortlisted... there were some other really great designs” says Joe. This decision thrust Joe into an unknown world of frantic preparation to evolve his design for the next round of the competition. Joe knew that he needed to get a great sculptor on board, as sculpture was such an integral part of the architectural design: “I had a list of about 3 or 4 sculptors, but when I saw Sabin’s work, I immediately threw the list out.”

Read more: Architecture and Sculpture come together for World War One Memorial

NH Primary SignFirst New Hampshire presidential primary in 1916 has echoes in events 100 years later

By Mike Williams
Staff Writer

On February 8, 2016 voters in New Hampshire elevated outsider candidates to leading positions in the presidential race, despite objections from some in their party’s establishment. This was not the first time the New Hampshire primary has resulted in a dichotomy between party leaders and party voters; in fact, the design of the primary contest is to empower rank and file party members in the nominating process.

Tired of the shady deals in the smoke-filled hotel rooms of party bosses that had traditionally selected Wilson buttoncandidates, Progressives at the beginning of the 20th century began adopting the presidential primary as a way to gauge the sentiment of voters rather than political bosses. In 1916, New Hampshire hosted its first presidential primary, the results of which would be echoed exactly 100 years later.

The concerns of voters in 1916 were very similar to those of 2016. Events abroad and fears at home had polarized voters into two camps: stay the course, or undergo radical change. President Wilson, running for reelection on the Democratic ticket, ran almost unopposed on the popular slogan “He kept us out of the war,” a testament to the popularity of maintaining American neutrality during WWI.


Read more: 1916 New Hampshire first presidential primary

Last survivor recalled Christmas 1915 battlefield soccer match

Bertie Felstead2By C. N. Trueman

Legend has it that on Christmas Day 1915, soldiers from both sides of the trenches in World War One met up in No-Man’s-Land for a game of football. Nothing official was kept of this brief meeting on Christmas Day between the enemy, so our knowledge of what took place has always been somewhat patchy. However, the death in 2001 of one of the men who took part in this match resurrected memories of the occasion.

Bertie Felstead, the last survivor of that football match, died in July 2001, aged 106 years. Felstead, pictured at right, remembered the following:

He was a member of the Royal Welch Fusiliers.

On Christmas Eve, he was stationed in northern France with his colleagues near the village of Laventie when he heard the Germans in a trench 100 metres away singing “Silent Night”. In reply, the Royal Welch Fusiliers sang “Good King Wenceslas”.

On Christmas Day, after some shouting between both trenches, he and his colleagues got out of their icy trench and greeted the Germans. Bertie Felstead recalled that the Germans probably were already out of their trench before the British got out. He claimed that nothing was planned and that what happened was entirely spontaneous. Read More

Memorial Design Competition design team winner to be announced January 25, 2016

By Chris Isleib
Public Affairs Officer, World War One Centennial Commission

WASHINGTON, DC ─ The U.S. World War One Centennial Commission has scheduled a formal announcement on January 25 of the winning design team for the World War One Memorial Design Competition.

The Commission was established Congress in 2013 to ensure a suitable observation in the United States of the centennial of World War I. In 2014 Congress authorized the commission to establish a national World War I memorial in Washington, D.C. Congress designated Pershing Park as the site for the memorial. Pershing Park is located one block from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, adjacent to the Willard Hotel and the District of Columbia’s Wilson Building.

In May 2015 the commission opened an international design competition. In Stage I of the competition, the Commission received more than 360 design concepts from designers around the world. In August, an independent jury of design professionals and historians selected five of the design concepts to advance to Stage II of the competition.

The five design teams consulted with representatives from the Commission, the National Park Service, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, the National Capital Planning Commission, and other stakeholders to develop and refine their design concepts. The designs must must meet a number of criteria related to design merit, site considerations, environmental impact, historical preservation, sustainability, and cost. The designers submitted their final concepts in December 2015.

The design jury is currently reviewing the Finalists' work, and will select a team to recommend for endorsement by the Centennial Commission.

The site for the World War One Memorial will be Pershing Park, at the corner of 14th Street NW and Pennsylvania Avenue, in downtown Washington DC. The site is directly across the street from the Willard Hotel, and is also next-door to the White House Visitors Center. The site was authorized by Congress in 2014.

A corner of Virginia "that is forever England"

By Elizabeth Dinger

I love cemeteries. Always have. When I became a ranger at Petersburg National Battlefield in 1997, the best part was knowing I would watch over the Poplar Grove National Cemetery, and tell the stories of the soldiers buried there.

Symonds plaque 600Being an Anglophile from childhood, the first grave I noticed was that of British Army Serjeant Major George M. Symons. How did he come to be buried in a predominately Civil War cemetery on this side of the Atlantic?

Providence must have wanted my questions answered.

Within a short time of my arrival in Petersburg, the family of George Symons began looking for his grave. Symon's niece and her husband, Joyce and Sid Fletcher, who had become U.S. citizens living in Michigan, were eventually able to visit the grave of her father's favorite brother.

And something unexpected happened.

We became connected, became friends, through a man none of us ever met.

To me, Symons is family, the man I call "Uncle George." Even my 10 year old nephew, Jake, who is the son of a U.S. soldier, knows of Uncle George. When Jake comes to visit, we make a trip to the cemetery to pay our respects to "Uncle George" who died on a "foreign field."

A native of London, George M. Symons joined The Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment) in 1908. His Army postings included India, the Mediterranean (where he participated in the last major attack of the Gallipoli campaign) and France.

By late 1917 Symons was assigned to the Army Gymnastic Staff as a physical training and bayonet fighting instructor. Promoted to Company Serjeant Major he arrived at Camp Lee, Virginia in August, 1918 where he helped to train the men of the 80th “Blue Ridge” Division.

Symonds familyA month later the camp was hit with influenza. One of nearly thirty men who died in a 24-hour period, Serjeant Major Symons died at a camp hospital on 8 October 1918, with the end of the Great War almost in sight. He was 28.

He was buried at Poplar Grove National Cemetery, a unit of Petersburg National Battlefield. In a letter to the family an Army chaplain recounted Symon’s military service, writing “...I suppose, like all of us, he would have preferred to die on the field of battle. He did die on the field of battle, where men were trained by him to fight for all things that make life worthwhile.”

Of the funeral the chaplain wrote “Just below his grave on that hill side, where the Union Jack flies above his sacred remains there was another funeral immediately after, of an American soldier, with the Stars and Stripes above his remains...as I stood on the narrow ledge of earth, which separated these two open graves, and read the sacred words of the service which comes from the English prayer book, I prayed that God would unite their native hands forever in a friendship as unbreakable and as intimate as that quiet repose which was shared by a British and American soldier. “

Grave 5596 at Poplar Grove National Cemetery is truly, as the English war poet Rupert Brooke wrote “some corner of a foreign field that is forever England” made sacred by the earthly remains of Serjeant Major George M. Symons.

Elizabeth Dinger is a Park Ranger in the Poplar Grove National Cemetery at Petersburg National Battlefield in Petersburg, VA

USAHEC is treasure trove for World War I research

WWI soldier and tank USAHECBy Cristina Tejada
Staff Writer

Tucked away in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center (USAHEC) is dedicated to educating and preserving the legacy of those who have served their nation in the Army. The USAHEC’s library and archive houses millions of books, personal correspondences, papers, and photographs. Through museum exhibits and the Army Heritage Trail, the USAHEC strives to tell the story of the members of the U.S. Army and its veterans.

In the Visitor and Education Center, the Soldier Experience Gallery allows visitors to experience the U.S. Army through the eyes of the men and women who have fought in the Army from the Spanish American War to Afghanistan through the presentation of artifacts and oral histories.

USAHEC holds numerous World War I related holdings such as photographs, manuscripts, artifacts and books. Lindsay Strehl, who works for the Programs and Outreach department of USAHEC, wants to stress the vast amounts of collections, such as memoirs and letters, which are open to the public for research. “We want to get the word out to the public that there are other places besides the National Archives to go for military records. For example, USAHEC has a large collection of unit history where a person can look up an ancestor’s unit and research information about the unit’s movements and actions during the war.” 


Read more: U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center (USAHEC) main article

Army-Navy 1915: The Game Before the Storm

1915 Army NavyBy Michael Williams
Staff Writer

When Army meets Navy on the gridiron this weekend, the two teams will be participating in one of the longest and most prestigious rivalries in American sports. The teams will face off before an American public worried about events in Europe; worried about committing forces into a long and costly war; worried about subversive agents, both domestic and international. The atmosphere in which Saturday’s game will be played echoes that of another Army-Navy Game, played exactly one hundred years ago.

By 1915, events in Europe had made clear that the Great War, far from adhering to the six week schedule that most European generals had calculated in the summer of 1914, was here to stay. Americans awoke every morning to headlines describing a front line that never seemed to move, unimaginable casualties, and devastating new weapons of war such as poison gas and submarines that killed thousands and refused to discriminate between soldier and civilian. Only months earlier, one of these submarines had sunk the passenger ship Lusitania, killing over 1,000 civilians, including 128 American citizens. Atrocities such as this seemed designed to draw America into the bloody fray.

In the midst of this carnage, America maintained a status quo of neutrality. Despite this detachment, the country had experienced divisive side-effects of the war, and the two teams at the Polo Grounds in New York played before a country that was markedly different than just a year prior. Opposing groups for peace and intervention had been popping up across the nation since the war’s start, fiercely debating American neutrality. Ex-President Teddy Roosevelt’s unrelenting jingoism in the press had been a thorn in the side of the government’s official policy, while the same week as the game, industrialist Henry Ford had set sail on a much-derided “Peace Ark”, believing he could bring about an end to the war in a few weeks. As if to highlight the national discord, just as the two teams took to the field, someone let loose a flock of doves. As the New York Times reported, however, “it seemed to have but small effect on the fighting spirit of the two teams and their supporters who apparently would have been willing to stay in the trenches until Christmas or longer.” Present at the game was the most important voice of neutrality, President Woodrow Wilson, accompanied by his then-fiance Wilson and Edith GaltEdith Galt. Watching these doves fly off, President Wilson must have understood, more than anyone else present, the import of these peaceful creatures, slowly fading out of sight only to be replaced by the roar of 40,000 battle cries.

The conflict over the war raged within President Wilson with more fury than anything on the gridiron. The President knew that sooner or later, the United States would be drawn into the the conflict; Wilson had threatened to sever diplomatic relations with Germany several times over the course of the year, a prelude to war, in response to submarine attacks. Wilson also knew, though, that the paltry United States Army, with just over 100,000 active soldiers, was not ready for the scale of European combat- the trenches seemed to be eating numbers like that on a weekly basis. Only a month before the game, the President authorized a four-fold increase in the standing strength of the Army, as well as a vast expansion of the nation’s naval power that included several new battleships, cruisers, and most tellingly, submarines. It was clear to Wilson that despite the competing cries of “Beat Navy” and “Beat Army”, these two expanded branches of the military would soon have to work in close concert on both the Atlantic and European battlegrounds.

Events abroad were not the only concern of President Wilson as he watched the game, however. For several months, German saboteurs had been responsible for routinely destroying factories and ammunition stockpiles in the US, including a massive explosion at a DuPont plant the week of the game that killed 31 workers. It seemed that, even before the United States could rally the necessary troops for combat, her capability to equip them would be destroyed by enemies within. In an address to Congress a few days after the game, President Wilson called for action against “disloyal citizens,” asking Congress for laws by which the country would be “purged of the corrupt distempers produced by those foreign born citizens of the United States, who had uttered the gravest threats against our national peace and safety.” However, his rhetoric was not reserved solely for saboteurs. Wilson also took aim at Americans who had “forgotten themselves and their honor as citizens as to put their passionate sympathy with one or the side in the European conflict above their regard for the peace and dignity of the United States,” a thinly veiled attack on jingos such as Teddy Roosevelt. To Wilson, these men also practiced disloyalty, and their words were as subversive to American peace as a saboteur’s bomb.

Army coach leavesJust as he had to balance the conflicting desires of pacifists and jingoists, so too did President Wilson balance his support for the teams on the field. At half-time, the president and his party rose from their box in the Navy stands and ceremoniously crossed the field to take a seat on the Army side, a move of presidential impartiality started by his predecessor and current headache, Teddy Roosevelt. As Wilson entered the stands, he was surrounded by young men who only 18 months later would be sent, at his order, into the trenches of Europe. Indeed, the 1915 class of West Point later became famous as the “class the stars fell on”; 59 graduates went on to become generals, including a young running back on the 1912 football team named Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ultimately, the President’s presence on the Army side had a positive effect on the team, “nerv[ing] the Army up to to harder fighting... and it was soon clear that West Point was going to [win] again,” as the Times wrote. This would be the last time that President Wilson would have an effect on the game. The next year, he would be absent because of a cold. The year after and the next, the game would be cancelled, as the same men who so ebulliently cheered the Army win in the grandstands of New York courageously fought for their country in the trenches of Europe, transported across the dangerous waters of the Atlantic Ocean by their rivals across the field.

When the Army-Navy Game did return, in the fall of 1919, it represented an eager return to normalcy for a nation still reeling from war: 45,000 spectators, including an honorary contingent of wounded soldiers, braved the pouring rain to see Navy beat Army 6-0. Conspicuously absent was President Wilson; the weight of war and peace had finally taken their toll on the man. While campaigning for ratification of the Treaty of Versailles in September of 1919, President Wilson suffered a series of debilitating strokes, and he would spend the rest of his presidency an invalid in the White House, with access to him tightly controlled by his new wife, Edith. By that point, though, it was not necessary for the President to balance out the competing shouts, both in the stadium and in the country. The game had come to mean so much more than it had in 1915. As one editorial that day put it, “This annual clash of America’s two great service schools, interrupted by the last two years by America’s participation in the war, is much more than a mere football game. It is a spectacle of national significance, unique in the annals of sport. For this event, the flower of America’s military and naval forces assemble...the blaze of color that comes with any great gathering of uniforms flashes forth more emphatically today than on any other peaceful occasion.”

U.S. World War One Centennial Commission enters formal partnership with France’s Mission Du Centenaire 14-18

Dayto Zimet sign agreementBy Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, U.S. World War One Centennial Commission

WASHINGTON, DC: On Thursday, 19 November in a ceremony at its Washington offices, the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission signed a partnership of mutual support with France’s Mission Du Centenaire 14-18. Mission Du Centenaire is the official government agency in France set up to provide public education and commemoration for the war, and is the counterpart to the U.S commission.

The agreement calls for the two organizations to share their experience, knowledge, and technical means as they prepare for the commemoration of the American intervention in World War One. Specifically, it identifies four areas for particular cooperation: 1) the identification and planning of the main events, 2) communication, digital and cultural cooperation, 3) education, and 4) remembrance tourism.

Daniel Dayton, Executive Director of the Centennial Commission, and Joseph Zimet, Directeur General for the Mission Du Centenaire, signed the document in the presence of the Chair and Vice Chair of the Commission, Robert J. Dalessandro and Edwin Fountain, respectively, as well as the Mission Du Centenaire's Diplomatic Counselor, Christian Thimonier, and their External Affairs Counselor, Sophie De Villiers. Also present to witness was Centennial Commissioner Monique Seefried. Read More

#Countdown to Veterans Day 2015 raises awareness of veterans' issues, reminds us of the 5 million Americans who served in WWI

04 018 500pxBy Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, U.S. World War One Centennial Commission

This message is a thank you for everyone who helped with the #CountdownToVeteransDay effort.

We at the World War One Centennial Commission believe that one day a year is not enough to talk about veterans issues & veterans needs. So, we decided to do something about it.

Seven weeks ago, our office started the #CountdownToVeteransDay hashtag, to tell the veterans story.

We asked you, and other members of the veteran/military community to join us - to post/repost veteran facts, links, and thank you's. With your collective help, this simple effort grew and grew. In two weeks, we created a countdowntoveteransday.org website, to collect veteran-themed volunteer opportunities. The effort continued to grow.

As of November 13, the #CountdownToVeteransDay hashtag had registered over 36 million impressions, and the website has listed over 60 veterans organizations with volunteer opportunities. The collective help that you provided made a direct impact on the awareness of veterans issues.

This momentum can continue. The U.S. World War One Centennial Commission was created by Congress to remember a special group of veterans -- the 5 million Americans who served during World War One.

We invite you to visit to our website, http://www.worldwar1centennial.org/ , follow our social media efforts, https://www.facebook.com/ww1centennial and @WW1CC on Twitter. Get involved with the World War I centennial commemoration community. Learn about these special Americans. Help us to tell their stories.

Your simple reposts and retweets can help preserve the legacy of those veterans of World War One -- just as your efforts helped our veterans today.

Memorial Park in Houston honors those who trained at Camp Logan
and served their nation in World War One

Camp Logan sceneBy Michael Williams
Staff Writer

One hundred years after the outbreak of World War One, it is often hard to see the remnants of the conflict that so affected communities across the nation. Unlike other wars of the twentieth century, there are no veterans of World War One left to tell their story; film and photography, still in their infancy at the time, provide only an incomplete and dated record. Instead, World War One is remembered silently, through monuments and parks that dot the country.

In the heart of Houston lies Memorial Park, one of the largest urban parks in the country. Thousands of Texans take advantage of the park’s running trails, softball fields, swimming pools, tennis courts, and golf course everyday, often without realizing the history below their feet.

Read more: Camp Logan in Houston

Scholar details social complexities of occupied Belgium

Sophie De Schaepdrijver speaking at Georgetown UniversityBy Jean Gossman
Staff Writer

Although contemporary observers tend to view World War I Europe as either the battle front or the home front, “vast swaths” of Europe were occupied during World War I, as Professor Sophie De Schaepdrijver pointed out during a recent Georgetown University forum on her Great War occupation scholarship. Germany’s occupation of Belgium “generated specific war efforts” from both the occupiers and the occupied. “These efforts tried to establish some kind of stability,” De Schaepdrijver said. She noted that after the war American efforts helped stabilize Belgium.

Civilians’ role in occupied Belgium, “as underground patriotic culture defined it, was precisely to push back the remit of armed violence and to claim the unassailability of civilian life,” De Schaepdrijver wrote in “No Country for Young Men: Patriotism and its Paradoxes in German-Occupied Belgium during the First World War.” Ultimately, “the credo that justice would prevail in the long run was a cornerstone of patriotic belief.”

While protesting German authority, De Schaepdrijver wrote that Belgium “did not define itself as rebellious; rather, it strove for the return to a (presumably) natural order of things, and its moral reasoning hinged on the notion of immanent justice – the belief that iniquities would be punished and that usurped authority was by definition temporary.”

German troops march through Brussels in 1915Belgium’s view that the “scandal” of the invasion should not and would not last drove the “vision of order” that fueled citizens’ efforts “to deny legitimacy of the occupying regime,” De Schaepdrijver said during the forum.

“They were strictly civilian efforts and used civilian tools” such as “discourse, symbolic acts such as celebrating the forbidden national [Belgian] holiday or wearing the national colors,” sabotage, and intelligence work, along with “a sizeable clandestine press.”

But this “culture of patriotic endurance” proved “inhospitable” for educated young civilian men not at the front, De Schaepdrijver said.

Belgians fleeing to HollandIn general, few Belgian men served at the front during World War I due to lack of early mobilization by the “not particularly martial country” and the swiftness of Germany’s invasion, according to De Schaepdrijver.

Yet educated young civilian men “marooned” in occupied Belgium were “publicly shamed” and looked down upon for not taking up arms against Germany. University students “were a minority everywhere including in Belgium. You’re looking at one out of 1,000 young men, ages 18-25, in college. A handful of young men, really.”

Post-invasion enlistment – an “extraordinarily dangerous thing to do” -- entailed a risky escape to an unoccupied area in Belgium or to an Allied nation, De Schaepdrijver pointed out. Some young men ended up feeling forced to accept German offers to serve as confidence men.

After the war, cut off from societal respect and social relief made available to those who had worked and served Belgium’s cause, many of these young men enlisted support from American pacifist and social reformer Jane Addams, said De Schaepdrijver. Addams, founder of Chicago’s Hull House, worked with the Commission for Relief in Belgium, headed by future U.S. president Herbert Hoover.

“The more the war is retrospectively defined as having been about nothing, the more [the young men’s] stance becomes avant-garde and rebellious. The fact that they suffered some kind of troubled fate [with] the Belgian state is only going to strengthen that identity” within a decade after the war.

De Schaepdrijver is an associate professor of modern European history at the Pennsylvania State University. The forum was sponsored by the Georgetown University Institute for Global History and the University’s Mortara Center.

Interview with Professor Sophie De Schaepdrijver

"...the Americans cared about us, and that was very important."

Sophie De Schaepdrijver 500By Jean Gossman
Staff Writer

In your paper, you noted that the culture of Belgium’s World War I occupation by Germany does not loom large in national memory. Other than the passing of those who experienced the occupation within living memory, why is this the case?

“For a long time, the whole experience of occupation was not seen as central” to Belgian’s World War I experience, according to De Schaepdrijver. Instead, the German occupation “was a marginalized memory.” But, “with the centenary, things have changed a lot.”

Do you think that World War II subsumed memory of the Great War?

“Yes, [World War II] was a war that was supposedly about something,” and Belgians’ experience of occupation “was something that [they] would link to World War II.”

How would you characterize the Belgian experience and memory of American World War I aid to Belgium through the mid-century postwar period and beyond?

“It was not something that loomed particularly large. [Growing up during the 1960s] I don’t think anybody knew why we have [a boulevard named for U.S. ambassador to Belgium] Brand Whitlock in Brussels, for instance.

Has awareness changed in recent years?

During the present centennial commemorative period, “there is a general revival of [interest in] World War I across Europe.” Moreover, after Belgium suspended the draft in the 1990s, the country looked back to “a time of deep military mobilization and realized an era has come to an end.

What lessons can be taken from your scholarship on the occupation?

“War always has unintended consequences. The state matters. What I mean by that, what I’ve explored in my paper, is a firm belief in the endurance of the Belgian state. This belief was expressed in the absence of the Belgian state [during the occupation] because there was no government. Yet civil society carried on in the firm belief that [the government] would be reconstituted, as indeed it was.

Leuven library“I think the framework matters in which people [express] solidarity, feel themselves to be citizens. There was a belief that the framework [worked] for us. Which is not the same as flag-waving patriotism, necessarily. It’s a belief that as a citizen there is a framework that works for you. That is something that I saw very clearly in Belgians’ experience in this war. The vast majority of citizens were not ready to accept that that framework [of the state] would be taken away.

flour sack A 62 4 202“My general point is that you can have a lot of heroism and good will, but you need a firm framework for it, and the majority of Belgian citizens felt that the framework did exist” during the occupation – “the concrete presence of the Belgian state, with the constitution and [national] institutions.” De Schaepdrijver noted that after the war and restoration of the state, Belgium established universal manhood suffrage and set taxes on war profiteering.

What was the Belgian view of America and its involvement in World War I during and immediately after that conflict?

“What you see in occupied Belgium is the sense ... that the Americans cared about us, and that was very important.” Belgians began to celebrate Valentine’s Day, “which was unknown” earlier and considered an American holiday.

“Many Belgians” expressed their gratitude for American food aid by “beautifully” embroidering the flour bags, which were returned to the American Commission for Relief in Belgium. The commission then sold the bags for fundraising. Today, “you see them here [in U.S. historical] collections. For example, the Hoover Library has several beautiful specimens.”

After the war, “America was cool – the coolest country.” Belgians “were proud that this great country had taken an interest in them and come to their aid.”

Jean Gossman is a volunteer at the United States World War One Centennial Commission.

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