The Great War’s Forgotten Monuments
Mark Levitch wants you to take a good, hard look around your home town. Is there a small, rusty plaque in an alleyway downtown? A chipped, decaying statue perched in an out-of-the-way square? Chances are, they just might be forgotten relics of World War I.
Levitch runs the World War I Memorial Inventory Project. At a time when our memory of war is faded and patchy, he’s trying to find the many memorials he believes may be hiding in plain sight in towns across the nation. He admits that they are often far less eye-catching than hometown memorials for WWII, vets, for example, and are more likely to be in some forgotten corner of a local park than on the National Mall.
But what they don’t have in style, World War I memorials make up in numbers. Levitch estimates there are around 10,000 World War I memorials hidden across the United States. It’s a number that Levitch says eclipses even monuments to World War II, and reminds us just how important the war was at the time. So far, he’s only found about 2,000 still in place.
On a recent trip to Emmetsville, Maryland with our producer Andrew Parsons, Levitch stood under one memorial relegated to the edge of town. It’s a fighting doughboy designed by sculptor E.M. Viquesney, one of many he produced in the 1920s. As Levitch took it in, he was was quick to point out that the statue’s perplexing aesthetic might be a reason why they’re so easily forgettable.
It’s hard to make sense of. You give it a quick glance, and you go oh, yeah, that’s a doughboy. That’s World War I, I get it. But then you sort of look a little more carefully, and it’s like– OK, it’s World War, I see that. But why on earth would somebody in World War I be fighting like that? It’s like, I’ve got the sword– the bayonet, and the rifle, and the grenade, but then the pose itself is awkward.
In a word, they’re cheesy. But even their cheesiness has an explanation tucked into their history.
Right after World War I ended, erecting memorials to honor the war was the talk of towns across the United States. Communities were shaken by what had been the biggest and bloodiest conflict in modern history, and wanted to do what they could to commemorate it. Art historian Jennifer Wingate said it was a response to the way that the federal government was focusing their resources on commemorating American casualties overseas.
“Honestly, I think there’s this feeling of powerlessness, ultimately, that leads to this local, immediate desire to do something, to dedicate something. For those families of those 30,000 [American soldiers buried abroad], the memorials here came to be even more important.”
Adding to this desire to commemorate World War I, or the “Great War” as it was then known, was the turmoil that continued even after the war ended. Americans came home to economic and racial troubles as well as fears of communism. Wingate explained,
“The period after World War I, of course, the immediate– 1919, 1920, is really a period of crisis. There’s the Red Scare, and there’s a recession, and there’s unemployment, and racial tension, and lynchings. And I mean, there’s just– it’s very volatile. And so again, I think it is related to this sense of needing to reestablish a sense of power, and control, and confidence, and this feeling that everything is OK.”
Communities wanted both to commemorate the war and to give their towns a sense of security, but in most cases either didn’t want to wait, or didn’t have the funds to commit to graceful, carefully planned memorials. The work of E.M. Viquesney (the same artist who created the Emmetsburg doughboy) fit the bill perfectly. His doughboy statues felt traditional and secure, and could also be erected quickly and relatively cheaply. Viquesney sold hundreds of his “Spirit of the American Doughboy” statues, marketing them as a “watchful eye over the community” and a commitment to democracy and American ideals.
Artists and architects were indignant, even angry, over these hastily created doughboy sculptures. “Must we suffer not only war, but also the commemoration of war?” read one commentary in the 1922 Christian Science Monitor. But even though artists may not have liked the cheesy images of the doughboy, over the course of the war and its aftermath, the American public fell in love with them. They quickly gained a prominent role in pop culture.
Doughboys showed up in magazines, newspapers, and advertisements for things as commonplace as soap and cigarettes. For Americans, the doughboy was so closely tied to the idea of World War I that the public even demanded that a statue of a doughboy be perched on top of one monument to the war’s African American soldiers.
But today, the doughboys and other memorials to World War I have fallen into obscurity. And that’s why Mark Levitch continues his search. He’s taken his project into the 21st century with a website that allows people from all over the country to report World War I memorials in their communities. You can can register any World War I memorials in your town on his website, to help make sure that the rich stories behind World War I memorials and the soldiers they commemorate live on.
Thanks to Jennifer Wingate for use of information and images from her article “Over the Top: The Doughboy in World War I Memorials and Visual Culture.”
Want to learn more? Listen to A Monumental Question, from our show on World War I: