Nov. 11 marked the 90th anniversary of the end of World War I. In fact what we now call Veterans’ Day was originally the Armistice Day that ended World War I on the 11th hour of the 11th day of November 1918.
Despite commemorating virtually every other major war with a national monument and national commemorative coin, neither exists for World War I and that is a great oversight and disservice to the many who served our nation and the cause of democracy in what may well have been the most brutal war of the last century.
According to the “America’s Wars” fact sheet from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, during World War I there were 4,734,991 American service members worldwide. There were 116,516 deaths of American service members, 53,402 in battle and 63,114 deaths not in the theater, as well as 204,002 non-mortal woundings. It’s hard to tell how many thousands of service members who returned home had their lives shortened or permanently altered by wounds, exposure to poison gas or mental after effects.
Today, of the millions who served, there is but a single known surviving American veteran of World War I – Army Cpl. Frank Buckles – who at 107 years of age is unlikely to be with us much longer. Recently this last surviving “doughboy” was honored in a meeting with the President and afterwards he went to visit the District of Columbia local government’s World War I monument in Washington. But in the capital city that proudly displays large national monuments to World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and countless statues and monuments for the Civil War, there is no national monument to commemorate those who participated in the first World War. Other than the local monument in an often overlooked part of the National Mall and the statue of World War I American Expeditionary Force leader General of the Armies John J. Pershing on Pennsylvania Avenue near the Treasury Department, commemoration of World War I in Washington is virtually nonexistent.
Cpl. Buckles also could not be presented with a United States World War I commemorative coin because there aren’t any, despite the fact that Congress has authorized a plethora of coins commemorating wars and veterans: In 1991 a silver dollar for the Korean War; in 1993 a set of silver and gold coins for World War II; in 1994 silver dollars for the Vietnam War, Prisoners of War and Women in Military Service; in 1995 a set of silver and gold coins for the Civil War; in 1998 for Black Patriots of the Revolutionary War; in 2002 for the West Point Military Academy; and in 2005 for the Marine Corps. Yet nothing for World War I.
Other countries have large World War I monuments. The Royal Mint of the United Kingdom has begun minting and selling a set of 18 sterling silver proof coins commemorating the 90th anniversary of the end of the Great War. Here in the United States, other than the transient fleeting attention briefly paid to Cpl. Buckles when he became the last living American veteran of the war, there has been very little attention paid to commemorating America’s sacrifice in the global conflict.
That 90 years have passed since the war ended and virtually everyone civilian and military who personally participated in it have died does not explain the neglect. The Civil War ended nearly a century and a half ago, all of its participants long, long since deceased (the “fact sheet” from the Department of Veterans Affairs indicates the final Union Army veteran, Albert Woolson, died on Aug. 2, 1956, at the age of 109 and the last Confederate, John Salling, at the incredible age of 112 on March 16, 1958) yet coins were just recently minted to commemorate the War Between the States, and hardly a year goes by that some kind of Civil War monument is not newly erected somewhere.
World War I was certainly not popular. A global conflict arising at a time of great technological change it witnessed bizarre and tragic events such as horse cavalry of the 19th century charging machine gun nests of the 20th; clouds of poison gas horrifically choking thousands of men to death while flame throwers immolated others; the advent of the first tanks, men living for years in underground trenches teaming with rats and lice while deadlocked armies made no progress on the field as millions died.
The end of the war proved as unpopular and unsatisfactory. As well related in Joseph Persico’s recent book, Eleventh Hour, Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, even the last day of the war was a nightmare with fighting and dying insanely continuing even though the armies knew the armistice had been signed. What was left of the defeated German Army was inexplicably allowed more or less to march home and fight another day. Punitive financial reparations placed on Germany ensured its economic collapse and the rise of political extremism. When President Woodrow Wilson suffered a near fatal stroke after returning home from the Paris Peace Conference and was unable thereafter to persuade the United States Congress to ratify the Treaty of Versailles (the American government would not formally end its war until the Knox-Porter Resolution was signed by President Warren Harding in 1921) and approve participation in the League of Nations, the final stage was set for World War II. But the lessons of much of the origin of World War II and many of the problems in the Mideast today, actually had their origins in World War I and that is why it is so important to not forget about the Great War.
At a time when there have been too many U.S. commemoratives for often increasingly esoteric and obscure events, the time is way overdue for a United States World War I commemorative coin, which hopefully could help begin a fund-raising and planning campaign for a World War I national memorial in Washington, to take its rightful place among the other such national monuments in the capital city.
Such coins, if properly marketed, would likely prove to be well received by collectors. Except for the obscure and poorly marketed Black Revolutionary War Patriots silver dollar of 1998, the majority of the commemorative coins for wars and veterans have sold reasonably well. Even the Black patriots coin is now sought as a good investment because of its low mintage.
A World War I commemorative coin could play a role in a public education campaign also. A well designed historically informative brochure that could be sold with the coin can serve to inform the public and schoolchildren about this important and tragic chapter of history. Recently, I read two excellent books on World War I: A World Undone by G.J. Meyer and Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy by David Stevenson and I would recommend these to anyone. But telling the story of World War I on a commemorative coin would be even better. The veterans of that war deserve no less.
David Allen Hines is a collector from Kingston, Pa.
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