Memorial Day has no official origin.
There is no start point when the first “official” Memorial Day took place. Instead it grew into a national observance out of many regional, state and municipal remembrances that rose out of the need to honor those who have gave all for their country.
Certainly, the Civil War played a part in its growth due to the near-endless sacrifices of human capital such as during the battles of Antietam and Gettysburg.
But for the largest battle, combined with the largest loss of life in American military service, that distinction unsurprisingly can be found in the bloody historical record of World War I.
The American Expeditionary Force
On April 2, 1917, the United States officially declared war on Germany.
At the time the United States had a standing Army of around 150,000 troops. This was paltry compared to the arms of Germany, which had conducted war in Europe since 1914 with a collected army of over 10 million fighting men.
By German calculations, it would take America years to build up a sufficient army to lend any decisive support to the Allies, by which time the War would have certainly been won for the Central Powers.
Yet Germany underestimated how quickly the U.S. Government would call Americans up for duty, and how enthusiastically the common citizen would answer that call.
Now fast forward to September of 1918. When the shelling begins in preparation for the Meuse-Argonne offensive, over 600,000 Americans wait behind it to begin the drive into Germany-controlled French territory. Eventually, the number of American soldiers committed to the battle would exceed 1 million.
As part of the agreement for its cooperation in joining the Allies fight, the U.S. insisted that the AEF fight as a single cohesive force. They would fight together as Americans and be led by Americans all the way to the top.
But there was a cost to this agreement, and it would become apparent during the planning of what the Allies called “The Grand Offensive,” the final effort to crush German supply lines and win the war. The main objective put forth for the AEF was gaining control of the rail lines at the town of Sedan.
This would involve a frontal assault into German lines, through the shattered, smoking trunks that made up what had originally been the Argonne Forest. They would cross deep ravines, navigate crumbling ruins, rush through flat open ground in plain view of steep embankments stationed with veteran German machine gun nests and artillery crews.
And the AEF did it.
Over a million men advanced through that shattered land, through uncut barbed wire, prepared positions and machine gun fire. Some of them had seen only a couple weeks of training in the U.S. before immediately being thrown onto the front lines and discovering the horrors of trench warfare.
It took 47 days, from September 26 to November 11 (Armistice Day). Up until the official start of the Armistice, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the Americans were still fighting.
122,000 American casualties were amassed during this battle: 26,277 killed and an incredible 95,786 wounded.
Today, the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery contains the largest number of American military dead in Europe (over 14,000). The land stretches for over 100 acres and at its heart is the largest American war monument in Europe, the Meuse-Argonne American Memorial.
In 1937, at the memorial’s dedication, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave a speech by radio as the shadow of war once again began to extend towards that very battlefield. In it he proclaimed:
“Today we reaffirm our faith in the democratic ideal. It was in defense of that ideal that we entered the great war twenty years ago. In the Meuse-Argonne, we fought as champions of the rights of mankind. Neither France nor the United States sought or seeks conquest; neither had nor has imperial designs. Both desire to live at peace with all nations. Both seek kinship with lovers of liberty wherever they are found.”