More than a century later, WWI gets its memorial in Washington

No pomp spared at unveiling of monument to long-forgotten war

Army veteran Andrew Forte watches on a monitor the nearby ceremony in Pershing Park on Friday to open the National World War I Memorial. Frank Buckles, the last American WWI veteran to die, appears on the monitor.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Army veteran Andrew Forte watches on a monitor the nearby ceremony in Pershing Park on Friday to open the National World War I Memorial. Frank Buckles, the last American WWI veteran to die, appears on the monitor. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 16, 2021 at 2:00pm

Washington does not want for monuments, but a new one to an old war opened with a flag-raising ceremony Friday.

The National World War I Memorial in Pershing Park is the first monument in the nation’s capital to all the 4.7 million Americans who served in the Great War and the 116,512 who would never come home.

As belated as the ceremony may have been, no pomp was spared during the hourlong event. There were recorded comments from President Joe Biden, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, plus a military band, WWI doughboy and sailor re-enactors, and, scaring a sizable subset of the city, a military flyover by two F-22s that were considerably louder than the biplanes that fighter aces flew over the fields of Flanders more than a century ago.

No one who fought in the war is left — the last living American doughboy died in 2011 at the age of 110. Most of their children are also gone. Edwin Fountain’s grandfathers served in the Great War, but that’s not why he ended up leading the memorial’s construction effort.

Fountain started small, working on a monument to D.C. locals who fought. “The D.C. war memorial was in a sad, sad state of repair, and somebody needed to help get it restored, and so I took that on,” said the former vice chair of the World War I Centennial Commission.

A lawyer by trade, Fountain developed an interest in historic preservation over his years living in a city that can often feel like one big sprawling museum. The successful effort to restore that memorial led to the campaign to create another, more ecumenical one, starting in 2008.

To Fountain and others who would go on to form the Centennial Commission, it just seemed wrong that America’s other major wars — World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War — had national memorials in the capital, but not the First World War.

They found allies in Congress in former Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, D-Mo. As mayor of Kansas City in the 1990s, Cleaver became something of a WWI buff, overseeing a push to rehabilitate the prominent memorial there, then known as the Liberty Memorial. It had fallen into disrepair, so the city attempted to give it over to the National Park Service for restoration, Cleaver said. It didn’t work.

“The National Park Service politely said, ‘Get out of my office,’” Cleaver recalled.

Instead, he proposed a small tax increase, which the voters approved, leading to the museum’s rehabilitation and reopening in 2006. Kansas City leaders started pushing to get it recognized as the nation’s memorial to the war, with Cleaver leading the effort in Congress. But he ran into opposition from the Centennial Commission and its supporters. “We ended up in a little fight with some folks from Maryland and Virginia, who said, ‘Well wait a minute,’” Cleaver said.

So a compromise was struck: Kansas City’s Liberty Memorial became the National World War I Museum and Memorial, and Pershing Park would become the National World War I Memorial. Congress authorized the Centennial Commission in 2013 and tasked it with overseeing the new monument’s construction, as well as the rehabilitation of smaller memorials across the nation and raising private funds for the work.

A model poses for sculptor Sabin Howard, the artist charged with creating a frieze honoring Americans who served in World War I. (Courtesy National World War I Memorial)

The new memorial’s main attraction — a 58-foot bronze frieze by sculptor Sabin Howard — is still being forged and cast. It won’t be installed until 2024.

The relief is a throwback to the monuments to the average fighting man that came into vogue in the years following WWI and to the aesthetics of the early 20th century. Friezes and reliefs were all the rage in art nouveau and art deco design — think the scenes on the side of the Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill or Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze inside Vienna’s Secession Building. 

Before then, most monuments — primarily funded by the upper classes — honored “great men” like generals and admirals. This park does that as well. The statute of Gen. John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, remains in the southwest corner.

At Friday’s grand opening, a flag that was flown over the Capitol on April 6, 2017 — the centennial of the United States’ entry into the war — and then flown over American battlefield cemeteries in Europe was raised up a flagpole in the park.

A long-forgotten war

There are a few reasons why the First World War was overlooked here for so long. For one, it was soon overwhelmed by the Second World War. Memorials often start popping up a few years after the fact, when the young soldiers reach prominence and financial means in middle age, when their thoughts turn again to their own mortality and then to their friends who didn’t come home. Memorials take time to fund, to plan, to build.

The Great War’s guns fell silent on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, and 11 years after that, the world plunged into the Great Depression. Less than a decade later, the world returned to the battlefield. America quickly became too busy fighting a new war to honor the old one.

While World War I is the “forgotten” war in the States, it’s remembered better in Europe. While America saw some 117,000 doughboys and sailors killed, that was a fraction of other combatants, such as Germany (2 million), Russia (1.8 million), France (1.4 million), Austria-Hungary (1.2 million), Turkey (772,000) or Italy (651,000).

America joined the war late, almost three years after hostilities began. But for the Zimmerman Telegram — an intercepted German communique to Mexico proposing an ill-conceived plot to get the United States’ southern neighbor to invade — we might not have fought it at all. “The reasons for the war itself were more ambiguous, the resolution of the war was more complicated, so it didn’t fit a mythology, it didn’t fit a clean narrative in a way that other wars did,” Fountain said.

The newly designed Pershing Park will do double duty as a local haven and a national landmark, but it remains to be seen whether it will work for the people who live and work here. The reflecting pool has been updated with a platform to highlight the forthcoming frieze but remains surrounded by descending terraces that will provide visitors places to sit. The indentation blocks street traffic noise, lending the park an appropriately contemplative quietude.

Like many of D.C.’s public spaces, though, priority is given to views of the monuments over how people might use them. Marble and stone dominate the space. In time, the shade trees planted may provide enough cover to keep the park cool, but for now the hard surfaces will trap D.C.’s sticky summertime heat.

Downtown D.C. is a semidesolate expanse of office buildings and museums, a fault of decades of zoning, and its streets remain largely barren outside business hours. Without the early-morning dog walkers, the joggers or the families taking a postprandial stroll, parks downtown often feel abandoned outside working hours. And underutilized parks, like Pershing was before its remake, can quickly become forgotten, not unlike the war that failed to end all wars.