I had a conversation recently with a man who had researched World War One for six months and put together an exhibition about local men involved. Briefly we discussed the term “supreme sacrifice,” as I mentioned that I thought his number of WWI deaths was rather low. His retort was that only those who made the “supreme sacrifice” were included in his count.
I was a bit aghast, but the researcher was a veteran, so I was not about to diss him. I let it go. Perhaps that is what they are teaching the “boys” these days–that they must die in battle, in a burning flash of glory, down with the ship, and all that, in order to count as having made the “supreme sacrifice.”
If you research the term “supreme sacrifice,” you see it is defined in many places as “something a person would give their life for, i.e. a soldier giving their life for their country.” Wiktionary says it is “dying (especially in battle) for one’s country or other cause.” Yourdictionary says an example is “a soldier giving their life for their country,” but it is non-specific on how the life is given. So essentially with supreme sacrifice, death is integral as is some form of military service, and in only one source did it imply that battle had to be involved.
Prior to World War I the term was used differently. Often it was used by Christians to describe the sacrifice of Jesus, but also for people who gave their life in other ways. In 1857 the North Carolina House of Representatives memorialized Mrs. William Beasley who died from burns, saying she “made the supreme sacrifice… in her heroic rescue efforts to save her pupils in danger of being trapped by fire.” She had stayed in the burning building to aid a 9 year old crippled boy, Larry Adams.
The use of this term, “supreme sacrifice,” gave some concern even during World War I. Rev. A.D. Decker, the Pastor of First Church, Pittston, Pennsylvania wrote an editorial in the Pittston Gazette of 9 November 1918, just 2 days before Armistice. He noted that “the newspaper almost every day are recording the death of some local soldier, who has made the supreme sacrifice, and laid down his lie on the battlefields of France..”
The wise pastor acknowledges that indeed these named made the supreme sacrifice, “but they are not the only ones. Those who have not died have been severely wounded and have come up from the gates of death, have also made the supreme sacrifice, and also those who have escaped wounds and death, and will come home un-scarred, but were in the thick of the fight and helped push the Hun back and down and out and exposed themselves to shell and machine gun fire…the millions of boys now on the battlefield have surely made the supreme sacrifice. But what about our boys on the battleships and in the training camps of America and France who have seen no service and yet are preparing for the fray and like the race horse, chafing at the bits, anxious and eager to get into the conflict and show their mettle…have they not also made a great sacrifice?”
But his sermon was not over. “There are still others who have made the supreme sacrifice and deserve our unstinting praise. The Y.M.C.A. workers, chaplains, Knights of Columbus, Hebrew welfare association and Salvation Army workers have followed the boys in every camp and have labored unceasingly for their welfare and comfort. Physicians and Red Cross nurses have labored day and night, not knowing rest or sleep for days, dressing wounds and ministering to the terribly wounded and comforting the dying. These have also made the supreme sacrifice. Their deeds of heroism will go down in the history on a part with the soldiers on the battlefield.”
He goes on to include those at home who kept their homes safe and the economy moving, writing letters, making comfort kits and other goods to send to the troops. He also mentions the “terrible influenza epidemic,” and that all those who volunteered to aid the sick and dying showed the same heroic spirit. I agree with Rev. Decker in his inclusiveness of those who made the supreme sacrifice. And so should you.
I salute the men and women during World War I who gave their lives for their country at home and abroad–making the supreme sacrifice. Life was as dear to them as it is to us. Some died instantly in battle, or later from wounds, from diseases, from accidents. Those who died in all branches of the military, army, navy, marines, air forces, merchant marines and the U.S. Red Cross nurses, doctors, and ambulance drivers should be included. The war was fought in the trenches but also on the home front, in the training camps, cantonments, coastal forts, hospitals and infirmaries. Some soldiers or nurses survived almost the entire war, dying from various causes and never returning home.
They all made the supreme sacrifice. They all should be counted. Even when it is difficult to count them. We should try.
[Editor’s note: The graphics used in this are out of copyright, snipped from 1918 newspapers].