At LSU’s Baton Rouge campus today, the university will hold a 3 p.m. ceremony to rededicate Memorial Oak Grove, an area of 31 oak trees dedicated in 1926 to honor 30 LSU students who died in World War I. The fighting in the war ended 100 years ago today, on November 11, 1918, and a peace treaty was signed the following year.
The 31st tree at Memorial Grove was added to remember an unknown soldier, since it’s in the nature of war that not every loss is clearly identified.
The sad truth, a century after the conflict’s end, is that most of the soldiers of World War I are unknown to us these days. Their names endure on tombstones and monuments, but they don’t really register deeply in the public mind. The war itself isn’t remembered much, either.
For evidence of that, look no farther than LSU’s Memorial Tower, dedicated in 1926 to honor all the Louisianans who gave their lives in World War I. The tower is, with apologies to Tiger Stadium, the most iconic structure on campus, but we must wonder how many students — or even graduates — know what the building is meant to memorialize.
The tower clock and its quarter-hour chimes are a reminder that time moves in only one direction, leaving the promise, peril and pain of the past to recede into shadows, obscured as the years go by.
So maybe there’s no surprise that World War I has been widely forgotten. There is danger, though, in forgetting too much, as the legacy of World War I sadly demonstrates. The war’s origins are complicated, but it grew from ethnic hatreds and imperial rivalries in Europe that eventually drew in the United States. The war lasted from 1914 to 1918, pitting the Central Powers, including Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey, against the Allies, which included America, France and England. Some 8.5 million soldiers and 13 million civilians died in the war, which used industrial-scale ingenuity to kill with assembly-line efficiency.
The destruction was so vast that World War I came to be known as “the war to end all wars,” since few could imagine humanity embarking on such a bloodbath again. But in failing to advance a reconstruction of Europe that advanced true peace, leaders merely set the stage for World War II.
World War I established the United States as a global power with global responsibility, a role our leaders don’t seem thrilled by lately.
But ignoring trouble abroad didn’t work to our advantage as we tried to avoid the conflagration of two world wars in the 20th century. That’s why remembering the warriors of World War I is important today — at LSU, throughout Louisiana, and across the world.