How D.C.’s Newly Unveiled WWI Memorial Commemorates the Global Conflict
The space’s central feature, a 60-foot-long wall of remembrance, remains unfinished
More than a century after World War I drew to a close, a long-awaited memorial commemorating the global conflict has opened to the public in the nation’s capital. As Lolita C. Baldor reports for the Associated Press (AP), the Great War is the last of the United States’ four major 20th-century wars to receive a memorial in Washington, D.C.
“The National World War I Memorial is a depiction of what happened 100 years ago, when soldiers boarded ships bound for France, determined to bring to a close what they thought would be a war to end all wars,” said Daniel Dayton, executive director of the World War I Centennial Commission, during a virtual ceremony held last Friday, per Michelle Stoddart of ABC News. “By themselves they of course couldn’t end all war, but their courage and sacrifice did indeed bring a decisive end to a conflict that had killed millions.”
Though the official opening ceremony and raising of the first flag at the site took place on Friday, Stars and Stripes’ Carlos Bongioanni points out that the central element of the memorial remains unfinished. A roughly 60-foot-long, 12-foot-tall bas-relief sculpture titled A Soldier’s Journey, the wall of remembrance is scheduled to be installed in 2024. For now, a canvas featuring sketches showing the future sculpture stands in its place.
The wall is the work of sculptor Sabin Howard. Per Jennifer Steinhauer of the New York Times, its 38 figures tell the story of a reluctant soldier who returns home a hero—a tableau that reflects the nation’s turn from isolationism to a position of global leadership.
“Starting from the left, the soldier takes leave from his wife and daughter, charges into combat, sees men around him killed, wounded, and gassed, and recovers from the shock to come home to his family,” notes the National Park Service (NPS) on its website.
The monument is located in an area previously known as Pershing Park. Now designated as a national memorial, the space incorporates an existing statue of General John J. Pershing, who commanded the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) sent to fight on Europe’s Western Front.
In addition to the design and construction of the memorial elements, the $42 million project included the reconstruction of the park, which had fallen into disrepair. The park is also a recreational facility used by tourists and local residents.
“Our objective was to build a memorial that would stand shoulder to shoulder with other monuments and elevate World War I in the American consciousness, at the same time recognizing that unlike those memorials, this has to be a memorial and an urban park,” Edwin L. Fountain, vice chairman of the Centennial Commission, tells the Times.
The memorial features a “Peace Fountain” and panels engraved with information about the U.S.’ role in the war. Per ABC News, visitors can learn more about the history that the physical monuments commemorate via an augmented reality app, or by scanning “information poppies” outfitted with QR codes. (The red poppies that grew over Europe’s battlefields became a symbol of remembrance for those who died in the war.)
WDVM’s Anthony Deng reports that the Centennial Commission, established by the Obama administration through an act of Congress, launched a competition centered on the park’s redesign in 2015. Of more than 350 entries, the commission chose the concept submitted by Howard and architect Joseph Weishaar. Construction began in December 2019.
Howard tells the Times that his mission was to make a sculpture that was both engaging and educational.
He explains, “My client said, ‘You have to make something that dramatizes World War I in a way in which visitors will want to go home and learn more about it.’”
Still, the artwork has faced criticism for depicting Black soldiers fighting alongside white ones. In reality, most Black soldiers who served during World War I were limited to labor battalions. Combat units were also segregated. Many Black veterans “returned home only to face bigotry and prejudice,” as Joe Williams writes for Smithsonian magazine’s May issue.
Howard says he changed the helmets of the Black troops in response to the criticism but did not otherwise alter their depiction because “they needed to be treated as equal stature.”
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, more than 2 million U.S. troops served overseas during the war. Almost 117,000 were killed. (The National WWI Museum and Memorial, an independent cultural institution in Kansas City, Missouri, commemorates the conflict as the country’s official museum dedicated to World War I.)
“The Great War [touched] almost every American family at the time,” said President Joe Biden in a recorded presentation screened before the raising of the flag. “For too long, that nationwide service has not been fully commemorated here in the nation’s capital.”
Biden added, “This memorial finally will offer a chance for people to visit and reflect and to remember. More than 100 years [have] passed since WWI ended, but the legacy and courage of those Doughboys sailing off to war, and the values they fought to defend, still live in our nation today.”