Christopher Gehrz

"We Will Remember Them"

A new national World War I memorial?

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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."

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