WWI: Forgotten in the U.S. But Not Around the World

The United States needs to do more to honor its Great War dead

WWI: Forgotten in the U.S. But Not Around the World

American troops walking along a road during World War I
American troops walking along a road

World War I is the most important event of the 20th century, setting into motion a second world war, the Cold War, and countless political and social revolutions. Most Americans know nothing about it including the fact that Veterans Day, November 11, was Armistice Day. To add insult to injury, there is no national World War One memorial in Washington D.C.

So why has the war been largely forgotten? I have six hypotheses.

  1. The fact the United States entered the war in 1917 and didn’t fight in full force until the last six months of the war. This makes the war a blip on the radar, instead of a full-scale crisis.
  2. The number of U.S. men and women who fought in the war is small, relative to the population, when compared to many of the other combatant countries. Unlike those other nations, many Americans didn’t know someone who had fought, died, been taken prisoner or become a refugee.
  3. U.S. citizens weren’t faced with starvation, a strain on national resources, conscription crises, mounting national debt or epidemics caused by the war. They did, however, face the Spanish Flu pandemic that started in 1918.
  4. The 1920s were a prosperous time in the U.S., remembered fondly.  In many other parts of the world, the decade was one burdened by war debts.
  5. For many British colonies and dominions, the war was the event that turned them into full fledged nations and, therefore, provided a sense of pride.
  6. The U.S. education system doesn’t focus on modern history. In grades 1-12, I can only recall one class teaching modern history, a U.S. history class that made it to the 1960s. I can, however, remember multiple classes teaching us that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066.

Different Perspectives

Other nations view the war differently. For them, it is still an event to remember and commemorate.

Different nations celebrate in different ways. Here are some examples:

  • The date November 11 is used worldwide for the funeral of unknown soldiers.
  • In Australia, a moment of silence is observed at 11 a.m. on November 11. Even though modern commemorations also include soldiers who died in other wars, this time is still used.
  • The “Ode of Remembrance,” a 1914 poem is read in many countries. (See below).
  • Poppies are used as a symbol of the dead. They symbolize the graves of the dead as illustrated in John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields.”
  • Nations are commemorating the war’s centennial with books, articles, movies and television programs as well as ceremonies.

Ode of Remembrance

“Ode of Remembrance” is a section of the poem “For the Fallen” written by Robert Laurence Binyon.

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children, England mourns for her dead across the sea. Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit, Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres. There is music in the midst of desolation And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young, Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow. They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted, They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not 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.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again; They sit no more at familiar tables of home; They have no lot in our labour of the day-time; They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound, Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight, To the innermost heart of their own land they are known As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust, Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain, As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness, To the end, to the end, they remain.

(Source: The Great War)

Centennial War Commission

In Washington D.C., every war but World War I is honored.  The United States Foundation for the Commemoration of the World Wars plans to change that.

The World War I Centennial Commission and the Pritzker Military Museum and Library launched the 100 Cities/100 Memorials program.  The program provides grant funds for the restoration of WW1 memorials throughout the country.  The first grants were awarded in 2017 and 2018.

“More than 4 million American families sent their sons and daughters to serve in uniform during World War I, 116,516 U.S. soldiers died in the war and another 200,000 were wounded,” Terry Hamby, commissioner of the United States World War One Centennial Commission, said. “100 Cities/100 Memorials is a critically important initiative that will have an impact beyond these grants. These memorials represent an important part of remembering our past and preserving our culture.”

Finally A Plan

The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts approved the design for the new National World War I Memorial on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., in September 2019.

The U.S. World War I Centennial Commission has been working on the project since 2014.  That year, Congress authorized “appropriate sculptural and other commemorative elements, including landscaping, to further honor the service of members of the United States Armed Forces in World War I” to be constructed in Pershing Park.

More than 350 people entered the international competition to design the memorial.  The winner was architect Joseph Weishaar featuring a monumental bronze by sculptor Sabin Howard.

The design must next be reviewed by the National Capital Planning Commission.  Once both agencies give their approval, the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission will work with the National Park Service to finalize a construction permit so work can begin immediately.

The Memorial is being built under the Commission’s authority by nonprofit organization The Doughboy Foundation.

This is Great News

“As the lead designer for this project, I’m proud to say that after four years of tireless effort we have at last achieved final approval for the design of the memorial,” Weishaar said. “This is possibly the greatest hurdle this project has had to overcome and it is a testament to the enduring resolve that the WWI Commission and its supporters have in seeing this project through to completion. It’s been a long slough, but now it’s time to build a memorial!”

“This is a day that all who have worked hard to bring the National World War I Memorial in Washington, D.C. from concept to reality are very happy to see,” Hamby said. “This final approval takes us a giant step toward beginning the construction of this long-overdue tribute in our nation’s capital to the 4.7 million Americans who served in America’s armed forces in World War I.

“This moment has been a long time coming, and I couldn’t be happier with the result.”

Former Congressman Ted Poe (R-TX) said. “All the Doughboys and sailors of the Great War are gone, but now after 100 years, America will trace their long patriotic journey through this magnificent memorial. We shall remember them all,  because the worst casualty of war is to be forgotten.”

A Soldier’s Journey

American troops climbing a hill during World War I
American troops climbing a hill

Howard is sculpting in clay at his New Jersey studio the memorial’s monumental bronze called “A Soldier’s Journey.”  The monument will be cast in bronze in the United Kingdom.  Once completed, it will be installed in the memorial park along with the existing sculpture of Gen. John J. Pershing who commanded the American Expeditionary Forces during the war.

“I am delighted beyond words to … be able to sculpt a memorial that will honor and uplift so many people across this nation,” Howard said.

The memorial also will feature extended reality elements to enhance and extend the visitor experience.

“One hundred years ago, 4.7 million American families sent their sons and daughters off to a war that would change the world,” Daniel S. Dayton, the commission’s executive director, said. “Finally, with this memorial, they will be recognized in the nation’s capital.”

An animation of the memorial’s design can be viewed on the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission’s website.

Source for 2019 update:  U.S. World War I Centennial Commission via PRNewswire.

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Updated: 28 November 2019
Melina Druga
Most kids have an active imagination. My imagination has stayed strong into adulthood, and I’ve funneled that creativity into a successful writing career. I write history, both fiction and nonfiction, because although your school history classes may have been boring, the past is not. My goal is to bring the past to life in all its myriad of colors.
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