Controversy Builds Over Commemorations of the Centenary of World War I


Official White House photo

President Trump with the Prime Minister of Canada and Germany, and other world leaders, at an event commemorating the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.


World War I is one of the most significant conflicts in all of human history. Heralded as the “war to end all wars,” World War I brought about destruction and devastation to every country involved. As the first technological war, the effects were absolutely devastating for civilians, soldiers, and leaders worldwide. Over 16 million people — civilians and soldiers both — across the globe were killed, and it’s estimated that there were around 37 million wounded.

The centennial anniversary of the end of World War I was this past weekend, on November 11. World leaders, soldiers, and civilians all reflected on the lives lost and the lessons learned, and united together in memory of this tragedy. There was a memorial in honor of those who died at the Battle of Belleau Wood, where world leaders gathered and paid their respects via moments of silence and laying wreaths. However, President Trump neglected to go, citing poor weather as a reason that he could not take Marine One, the presidential helicopter, to the ceremony.

The Battle of Belleau Wood was one of the most important battles of the war, as it was the first large-scale battle of the war that U.S. forces participated in. When the Marines arrived, French forces advised them to retreat since the odds were largely against them. Ignoring the orders of French officers, the Marines, led by General John J. Pershing, continued on into the forest. The battle was itself was three weeks long. German forces fought with machine guns, artillery, poisonous gas, and a steady stream of reinforcements. By June 26, the Marines had confirmed that the woods were successfully cleared but their success came at a cost. Although they had secured an extremely strategically important location, the Marines suffered 9,777 wounded and 1,811 fatalities.

As of July, 1937, the woods are dedicated as an American Battle Monument, named the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery. There, crosses mark nearly 2,300 graves of soldiers who lost their lives during the horrific battle. Another 1,060 soldiers’ names are available, but their bodies remain missing; their names inscribed on the interior wall of the memorial chapel. Rosettes are placed beside the names of soldiers whose bodies have been recovered since the building of the memorial.

There was a commemorative ceremony for the soldiers that died at the battle of Belleau Wood on Saturday, November 10 at the Aisne-Marne memorial, approximately 50 miles from Paris. The day marked the 100th anniversary since the end of the war, and countries worldwide came to honor those who died and what they died for. World leaders gathered and gave speeches, paid their respects, laid wreaths, and joined together in a stand of unity to contrast the setting of a war that had divided them.

Although President Trump went to France and stayed in Paris over the weekend, he chose to send a delegation to the memorial rather than go himself. The White House released a statement saying that it was unsafe for him to take the helicopter as planned due to poor weather conditions, and so he was unable to attend the memorial. He was supposed to lay a wreath and observe a moment of silence at the cemetery with other world leaders, including President Emmanuel Macron of France and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. Trump sent a delegation including his chief of staff, John Kelly, and several other members of the White House staff to the memorial in his stead.

President Trump is receiving international backlash concerning his actions via social media and other news outlets. Citizens, celebrities, government workers, and more have all responded with criticisms and harsh words. Many posted pictures of former president Obama delivering speeches in the pouring rain, and pointed out that several other world leaders not only attended the Aisne-Marne memorial, but various other memorials and commemorations on Saturday. Ben Rhodes was the senior adviser to Obama, and he posted on Twitter that, “I helped plan all of President Obama’s trips for 8 years. There is always a rain option. Always.” Similar criticisms claimed embarrassment and outrage toward the president’s absence at the commemoration. In response, Trump claimed that the Secret Service had told him that it was too dangerous to fly, and that they again advised him that it was unsafe to even go by car. However, former Secret Service members replied saying that the president has the final call in these situations, and that they are only there to advise him.

To his credit, Trump did honor those lost in World War I the following day, giving a speech at Suresnes American Cemetery and Memorial that was within a closer proximity to Paris. He also attended the ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, gathered alongside over 60 other world leaders in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe.