History Stories

The nation’s capital features memorials to Americans who fought and died in three of the 20th century’s great wars—World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War—yet it lacks a national monument to those who served in the Great War itself, World War I.

A campaign is under way, however, to rectify the glaring omission. The U.S. World War One Centennial Commission, a temporary federal agency chartered by Congress in 2013, has launched an open competition to choose a design for a new national World War I Memorial in Washington, D.C.

“We live under the long shadow of the First World War in so many ways,” said the commission’s chairman, retired Colonel Robert Dalessandro, at a May press conference announcing the launch of the competition. “It was a war that saw the fall of empires. It was a war that redefined the maps of Europe and the world, particularly in the Middle East, and today we live under the social and economic and geopolitical terms that were set by the Fourteen Points and the armistice at Versailles.”

“The United States lost more American servicemen in World War I than in Vietnam and Korea combined,” noted the commission’s vice chair, Edwin Fountain, who added that most of the war’s 116,000 fatalities were concentrated in just six months of fighting. “The combat fatality rate in World War I was at least 50 percent greater than that of World War II. It was a savage, bloody war that American forces made a major commitment to, and that fact is just not understood in America today.” Fountain said those who served in World War I “deserve to be honored with the same respect and devotion that we accord to the veterans of later wars.”

The mission of the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission is to mark the 100th anniversary of the American entrance into the war in 1917, and last year Congress tasked it with establishing a new memorial on Pennsylvania Avenue, one block from the White House and within eyeshot of the Capitol. The memorial will be built inside Pershing Park, dedicated in 1981 to honor General John J. Pershing, who commanded the American Expeditionary Force in Europe during World War I. The park includes a bronze statue of Pershing, related inscriptions in two stone walls and maps from the Western Front. “The redesign of Pershing Park will provide an opportunity to commemorate the sacrifices made by Americans in World War I and the chance to rejuvenate a run-down little park,” said Dr. Libby O’Connell, chief historian for HISTORY and A+E Networks and a member of the commission. “The design competition will lead to the renewal of a pre-existing public space and to the increased awareness of a war that shaped our world today.”

While a World War I memorial does stand on the National Mall between the World War II and Korean War memorials, the 47-foot-tall circular structure that resembles a Greek temple and doubles as a bandstand specifically honors the 26,000 residents of the District of Columbia who served in the Great War. The names of the 499 Washingtonians who died in the war are inscribed on the memorial.

The new memorial will honor the more than 2 million Americans who served in the Great War nearly a century ago, and the design competition is open to both amateurs and professionals as well as international entries, a recognition of the war’s global reach. The deadline for the contest is July 21. Along with basic sketches or drawings, competitors are required to submit a narrative, a graphic description of the concept and a $100 entry fee. A diverse jury with members who include urban and landscape designers, a college professor, an architecture critic and a retired army general will review the submissions.

On August 4, the commission will announce the selections of between three and five designs to move onto the second phase. These finalists will receive $25,000 prizes and be required to work with a professional designer or licensed architect who can assist with properly executing the design and navigating regulatory channels. The designs from the selected finalists will be exhibited to the public in December, and the winner of the National World War I Memorial Design Competition will be announced on January 20, 1916. The commission hopes to dedicate the memorial on November 11, 1918, the centennial of the armistice that ended World War I.

Fountain conceded the commission is “pursuing a very ambitious schedule” for completing the project in less than three years. The estimated cost of the memorial is between $20 million and $25 million. Since the federal government is prohibited from providing funding for the project, the commission will be totally reliant upon private contributions from corporations, foundations and individual donors. (Those interested in making a donation can do so by visiting the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission’s web site.)

“We are under no illusions that fundraising for a World War I memorial will be less of a lift than fundraising for a World War II or a Vietnam memorial,” Fountain said, “and the centennial period gives us the best opportunity to do that fundraising.”

Details about the design competition, including the competition manual, can be found at the commission’s web site.

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