Commemorating the War Dead | Virtually Preserving Overseas American Military Cemeteries

By Lyndsay Smith ::

Soldiers of the 119th Infantry, 30th Division, entering trenches at Watou, Belgium on July 9, 1918. Image courtesy of The National Archives. Source:

In early September, I began my internship with the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) through the Virtual Student Foreign Service (VSFS). The VSFS offers virtual internships from nearly 30 government agencies to U.S. citizens at the college level or above. It is managed by the U.S. Department of State.

I am one intern responsible for listing the historic structures on cemeteries managed by the ABMC. The commission was established by Congress in 1923. Nearly 125,000 war dead and 15,000 veterans and others are interred in 25 burial grounds across 16 countries. The commission also manages 27 separate memorials, monuments, and markers. Over 94,000 American servicemen and women missing in action, or lost or buried at sea are commemorated on stone tablets located around the world. My research provides a baseline inventory and descriptions of the historic structures that will in turn be used in future research, education, and management decisions. I am contributing to the efforts by the recently established Directorate of Collections and Preservation that are detailed in the article “Understanding ABMC: A Look into Collections and Preservation.”

I spent the bulk of the last few months studying the history of the ABMC and began researching my selection of cemeteries. I wanted to have solid foundational knowledge of the Commission and its operations alongside an understanding of the methodology I am expected to utilize in the coming months. In other words, I wanted a good understanding of who I am working for and the type of work that I am expected to do. Furthermore, researching the history and current state of the cemeteries that I will be working intimately with for the remainder of the project not only allows me to complete the requirements of this internship, but also gives me an appreciation for the work that I am expected to perform. My research involved a variety of media and publications and spanned a multitude of topics. I read material from the Department of State, National Park Service, and the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. I researched both published and unpublished government documents, archival images and videos, documentary videos, books, pamphlets, and websites. The ABMC even granted me access to its internal database for the duration of the project, which is a privilege not often granted to non-government employees.

John McCrae in uniform circa 1914. Source: Wikipedia

I chose three World War I cemeteries and two World War II cemeteries as the focus of the remainder of my research. They are located in Belgium, France, the United Kingdom, and Tunisia. Recently, I began studying the Flanders Field American Cemetery outside Waregem, Belgium. Flanders Field is the only WWI American cemetery in Belgium, and it gets its name from a poem written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae during the May, 1915 battle in Ypres called “In Flanders Fields.” The December 8, 1915 issue of Punch magazine included the poem on page 468, which was published anonymously. In the poem, McCrae remarks on the poppies and larks amongst the crosses marking the fresh war burials while calling for the remembrance of those who lie buried on the battlefield, i.e. in Flanders’ Fields. According to a report written by historian Lisa P. Davidson attached to the Historic American Landscapes Survey undertaken in 2013-2014, the poem lead to the poppy being a “lasting symbol of remembrance for fallen soldiers.” A desire to name an American cemetery after the poem existed prior to selecting that particular site. To me, it is only fitting that the cemetery located near where McCrae wrote the poem and within the province of West Flanders should carry the name.

Of my research so far, the film reels I found in the National Archives online database touched me the most. They show footage from the Ypres-Lys Operation and the surrounding towns, with a focus on the U.S. 91st Division. No battle scenes are in the two reels that collectively last about thirteen minutes. However, they show both soldiers and local civilians, the destruction of battle, and events in the immediate aftermath of the war. I cannot help but wonder how many of these soldiers and civilians alike lost friends and family in that conflict. How many of their fallen friends are now buried in the Flanders Field American Cemetery nearby? Did any of these soldiers visit the cemetery once it was established?

My personal connection with this internship stems from my awe of cemeteries dating to when I was very young. I found that reading about historical events and talking about how people “used to live” became very real when I was amongst the remains of the people themselves. I find it humbling and a special privilege to journey to someone’s final resting place and pay my respects. To me, cataloguing the historic structures in these overseas military cemeteries maintained by the ABMC gives me a small but special opportunity to give back to the people buried there.