Article

Christopher Gehrz


"We Will Remember Them"

A new national World War I memorial?

Every other January, my colleague Sam Mulberry and I take a group of students to Europe, where we spend three weeks learning about the history of World War I in a few of the places it affected: Flanders and the Somme, London and Paris, Munich and Oxford. As we journey, we encounter myriad attempts to make meaning of an impossibly complicated story. More often than any other symbol or text, we see three words: "Lest we forget."

On a centenary poster outside St Paul's Cathedral: "Lest we forget." On a simple wooden cross in a Belgian field, placed by English footballers where their ancestors turned No Man's Land into a makeshift pitch during the famous Christmas Truce of 1914: "Lest we forget." On tens of thousands of gravestones in Commonwealth cemeteries, where other words failed grieving families given the option of writing an epitaph: "Lest we forget."

At first glance, the phrase can seem rote, unnecessary. Surely a world war—fought by 65 million people and involving far more—cannot pass from the memory of anyone who experienced it, or heard about its glories and horrors second hand. Nor from the collective memory of a community broken, defined, or otherwise affected by it.

And yet, we forget. Time marches forward, carrying our attention with it. The complicated riches of contemplating the past don't stack up against the urgent needs of the present and the terrifying anxieties or tantalizing possibilities of the future.

So like the poet Laurence Binyon, watching the first Tommies cross the English Channel in 1914, people for a hundred years have pledged themselves against their nature:

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

That vow has been renewed again for the war's centenary. The BBC plans over 2,500 hours of TV and radio programming, and the British and French governments have jointly budgeted €65 million ($70 million) for commemoration. Australia's public and private sectors plan three times that much spending, though a lackluster public response so far has led one historian to warn of "Gallipoli fatigue."

(Not surprisingly, given such figures, the line between commemoration and commerce has blurred. Early in our tour of the Western front, our young Belgian guide worried that too many of his countrymen were trying to make a few euros off of centenary-related tourism. "That's not memory," he muttered.)

By comparison to what's happening in Great Britain, Europe, and Australia, the commemorative effort in the US has been relatively muted. Perhaps it will grow once we hit 2017, but even so, the US World War One Commission receives no taxpayer support. It will have to rely on private donors to raise the $25 million budgeted for the centerpiece of its commemorative efforts: a national memorial in Washington, DC.

Now, it's not like there are no WWI memorials in this country. In fact, there are thousands of them: statues and stones, plaques and parks, flagpoles and football stadiums. (The Chicago Bears, Texas Longhorns, and Nebraska Cornhuskers are just a few of the teams whose gridirons commemorate American losses from 1917-1918.)

And it's not like there's no national WWI memorial in this country. That's in Kansas City, where the Liberty Memorial has towered over the city since 1926 and is now fused with the National WWI Museum.

But there's no national WWI memorial in the capital city. London has the Cenotaph. Paris has an eternal flame at the Arc de Triomphe. Even Ottawa has a granite arch made famous in 2014, when its unarmed guard was killed by a gunman en route to the country's parliament. Meanwhile, Washington has had to settle for a relatively obscure statue of General John J. Pershing. (Raise your hand if you knew that it stands in a park across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House.)

That despite the fact—as the Commission's website rather huffily points out —that World War I took more American lives than the Korean War and Vietnam War combined: "Yet while those who fell in Korea and Vietnam, as well as in World War II, are honored and remembered with memorials on the National Mall, no such recognition is given to the veterans of World War I."

From 350 designs submitted last summer, the Commission selected five finalists. But while a winner will be announced on January 20th, a glance at the commission's vision and design goals suggest that "We will remember them" is easier said than done.

Even the Commission acknowledges that designing a new national memorial a hundred years after World War I is a "daunting but exciting challenge." Most practically, what's now Pershing Park must remain a park. According to the design goals, the memorial "should be designed primarily as open space," and it "should recognize and relate to its urban context" and "play a part in public and private activity patterns in the immediate area."

That goal is neither new nor impossible. One of the most striking American WWI memorials is Victory Memorial Drive (dedicated 1921), a 3.8-mile section of Minneapolis' Grand Rounds Scenic Way that passes through 200 acres of green space. It's an early example of a "living memorial," one that meshed seamlessly with Theodore Wirth and Charles Loring's grand vision of an urban park system. Referring to the now-replaced elms shading the road, the Army officer who spoke at the dedication promised that "as these trees grow, so will memories of these men and women who died in the cause of liberty grow through all generations." Likewise, my favorite of the five finalists for the new memorial in Washington—Maria Counts' "Heroes' Green"—incorporates 116 Gingko trees (one per thousand American servicemen killed) and 16 Tulip Poplars (one per million total lives lost worldwide) in its attempt to "[blend] memorial, park, and garden into a new type of public space."

But Counts' lovely design would run up against the same challenge as Victory Memorial Drive: it can't have taken more than a generation before Minneapolitans started driving, biking, jogging, and walking their dogs along that road without turning a single thought towards the 568 men of Hennepin County who died in the Great War. It's not a uniquely American problem. While we were at London's Hyde Park Corner last January, Sam noticed that the New Zealand war memorial—a series of free-standing bronze girder—is designed so that it intrudes on the jogging path, forcing some degree of attentiveness from runners who otherwise breeze past the site's three other WWI-related structures.

Even assuming that Washington's new memorial can "recognize" but not disappear into its urban context, it must still provoke a certain paradoxical kind of remembering in those who take notice. Most fundamentally, says the Commission, the memorial "should honor and commemorate the service of American forces in World War I with sufficient scale and gravity that the memorial takes its place within the larger network of memorials and monuments situated on and around the National Mall." The first two verbs in the charge are deceptively straightforward. But as the design goals clarify, the memorial must at once "honor the heroism and valor" of all Americans who "served, fought, and died" in the war and "commemorate the tragedy and magnitude of loss suffered" by the nation. It's a tall order to mix national glory with national sorrow. Or shame.

In the most generous reading possible, American valor brought the war to a conclusion in time to keep the number of combatants killed from surpassing ten million. (Another five or six million civilians perished.) But to what other end? In order to justify anything like an alliance with European democracies that did not hold democratic elections until after Armistice—and certainly didn't put the cynical expansion of their empires to a vote in the Middle East and Africa—Woodrow Wilson had to rise to Lincoln-like heights of idealistic rhetoric. But how can a nation build a memorial to a "war to end all wars" when three succeeding 20th century wars are being commemorated within walking distance? That the only Wilson Memorial in Washington is a bridge across the Potomac hints at the failure of his plans for a world "made fit and safe to live in."

And there are multiple heroisms and tragedies to remember. Will the memorial honor the valor of the pacifists, progressives, socialists, and labor leaders whose dissent risked imprisonment, unemployment, and ostracism? Will it repent of the nativism unleashed against German-Americans and other "hyphenates"? With the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial just a mile to the southwest, will a WWI memorial specially commemorate the African-American soldiers who fought in a Jim Crow military, defending rights abroad that they couldn't exercise at home? Diversity would join National Pride among the four themes organizing the hundreds of photographs comprising STL Architects' "American Family Portrait Wall." The bronze pillars of Johnsen Schmaling's "Plaza to the Forgotten War" would support cast glass monoliths "inscribed with intimate letters from servicemen and women torn between hope and despair." (Perhaps there will be space for a few bitter words from W.E.B. DuBois: "For the America that represents and gloats in lynching, disfranchisement, caste, brutality and devilish insult—for this, in the hateful upturning and mixing of things, we were forced by vindictive fate to fight … .")

Even if it avoids the nakedly patriotic bombast of Washington's World War II memorial (just over a decade old now), the WWI memorial faces what may be its most daunting challenge: it must be "timeless"—not just free from faddish elements but "meaningful for future generations" who will presumably have even less emotional connection to 1914-1918 than the present generation.

In Europe, our students come across two solutions to the problem. First, and most frequently, they see that memorial designers equated "timeless" with "old" and borrowed ideas from the civilizations of antiquity. The former Western Front bristles with obelisks erected in honor of divisions in the British army. In Saint-Quentin over 8,000 German soldiers are buried in the shadow of a Greek temple. The grandest American WWI monument in Europe is a double colonnade at Château-Thierry. It's not unlikely that Washington will soon add yet another neo-classical structure to its cityscape, with the "timeless architectural language" of Devin Kimmel's "Grotto of Remembrance" (designed so as "to fit the new memorial into the largely traditional context of its already grand historical setting") still in the running for the overhaul of Pershing Park.

But other WWI memorials followed the drift of most postwar art into abstraction. While the German graves at Saint-Quentin are guarded by two warriors who resemble Achilles and Hector more than the gaunt figures of All Quiet on the Western Front, the most famous statues to adorn any military cemetery are the modernist forms holding vigil at Roggevelde (two bereft parents designed by Käthe Kollwitz, herself a bereft parent) and Langemark (Emil Krieger's four mourning soldiers). Other memorial designers opted for the timelessness of geometry. In addition to the massive, interlocking arches of the Monument to the Missing at Thiepval, Sir Edwin Lutyens contributed the most iconic memorial of the war: the Cenotaph.

In the judgment of Jay Winter, the leading historian of Great War commemoration, "Lutyens the geometer" created a "work of genius … a form on which anyone could inscribe his or her own thoughts, reveries, sadnesses. It became a place of pilgrimage, and managed to transform the commemorative landscape by making all of 'official' London into an imagined cemetery." The Cenotaph was reproduced throughout the British Empire, from Cape Town to Hong Kong, but it's hard to imagine anything quite like it being placed next to the seat of executive power in the capital of this particular former colony.

It doesn't seem that anything too much like the stark angles of the Vietnam Memorial will win the day either. Among the finalists, Joe Weishaar and Sabin Howard come closest with "The Weight of Sacrifice," whose darkened bronze "walls gradually slip into the earth drawing their wisdom with them." But those surfaces would be covered with reliefs and inscriptions, since one of the WWI Commission's design goals had long since ruled out the other element that makes Maya Lin's work so distinctively timeless: "The Memorial shall not list names of individual servicemen and women who served or were killed in World War I."

No doubt, there are problems with a roll of honor. Even if space could be found at Pershing Park on which to list all 116,516 of the dead, the new memorial is (appropriately) meant to honor the millions who served. And it's not clear that a dark wall listing fallen doughboys will ever produce the tears I once saw on the face of my father, when he found the name of a former high school classmate who had perished in Vietnam. Can such a roll of honor be "meaningful for future generations" when, from its very beginning, there's almost no one left who knows the people named?

Yet the world's largest new WWI memorial—pending the completion of the one in Washington—features almost nothing but names. Dedicated in November 2014 near the village of Ablain-Saint-Nazaire, the Ring of Remembrance is composed of five hundred bronzed sheets of stainless steel naming the 579,606 French, German, British, and other soldiers who died during the war in northern France. Critic Jonathan Glancey likens it to Lin's Vietnam Memorial and Lutyens' monument at Thiepval, which lists over 70,000 Commonwealth troops: "what you see is not so much sublime architecture, but all those names carved in heartbreaking profusion." According to architect Philippe Prost, the circle of names is "synonymous with unity and eternity. Unity, because the names form a sort of human chain, and eternity because the letters are joined without an end, in alphabetical order without any distinction of nationality, rank or religion."

His mention of religion is noteworthy, given that the Ring of Remembrance is mere meters away from the basilica of Notre-Dame de Lorette. Standing at the center of France's largest military cemetery, that church bears words from David, written for Saul and Jonathan but repurposed to grieve the nearly 40,000 soldiers buried on the grounds: "Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! How the mighty have fallen!" (2 Sam. 1:19). Crosses mark most of those graves, but a small contingent of Muslim colonial soldiers from North Africa occupies a separate corner of the cemetery, their distinctive headstones angled towards Mecca.

While Prost's ring is made for a post-Christian Europe and may even be read as a laïque rebuff to the older site up the hill, there is something profoundly sacred about the commemorative act of naming. Consider the German cemetery at Langemark. Krieger's statues look at a mass grave containing the remains of nearly 25,000 men, with name after name filling basalt blocks on the grave's perimeter. Almost a third of those buried in the Kameradengrab are still unidentified. But they are not forgotten. Inscribed at the base of the grave are biblical words of reassurance: "I have called you by name, you are mine" (Isa. 43:1).

Long after the newest, grandest monument loses our attention and we return to our forgetting, to be named is to be—as thousands upon thousands of British gravestones testify simply—"Known unto God." Long after stone and marble symbols of national greatness have crumbled into ruin, reminders that every earthly kingdom falls, a simple list of names evokes the ancient claim of eternity that is found in every Commonwealth cemetery: "Their name liveth for evermore" (Sirach 44:14).

Christopher Gehrz is professor of history at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He blogs at The Pietist Schoolman, pietistschoolman.com.

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