After the guns fell silent over the trenches of Europe in 1918 and the doughboys returned from “over there,” Americans in big cities and small towns began the effort to commemorate those who served and died in World War I. Throughout the 1920s, Americans raised money and erected thousands of memorials, from ornate artworks crafted by the leading sculptors, artists and architects of the day to simple bronze plaques emblazoned with the names of those who sacrificed it all.
A century later, the bookends of the Civil War and World War II have overshadowed the “Great War,” in spite of its terrible toll. And as World War I has faded from public consciousness, those memorials erected in honor of the 4.4 million who served and the 116,000 who died have grown increasingly forgotten as well.
Art historian Mark Levitch hopes to change this through the nonprofit World War I Memorial Inventory Project, which he launched in 2009 after his unsuccessful attempt to find a monument in Arlington National Cemetery that the French government had reportedly given to the United States after the war. The all-volunteer effort is working to document and compile an online database of the country’s memorials to the Great War. Levitch, who wrote a dissertation on French World War I monuments and studied the war as a State Department analyst covering war-torn Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, has identified more than 2,000 memorials by searching through books, newspapers and trade magazines from the 1920s. There is much work to do, however, since he estimates that there may be as many as 10,000 World War I monuments across the country.
Through his lens as an art historian, Levitch, who works at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., has noticed that while many Civil War memorials are sculptural, Americans erected a much wider variety of monuments to World War I. One change, in particular, was the creation of honor rolls listing the individual names of not just those who died, but those who served as well. “The names of soldiers was important in the Civil War,” Levitch says, “but there were not these honor rolls of plaques like there were during World War I where every single person is remembered.” In addition to municipalities, religious organizations and even businesses erected honor rolls of its members who fought and died.
Another change in the wake of World War I, Levitch says, was that many of the memorials were also functional, such as the Victory Highway, a transcontinental roadway marked by a series of sculptures of an eagle taking a flight that spanned from Manhattan to San Francisco. Municipalities, universities and civic organizations built memorials that ranged from bridges and libraries to city halls and community centers to even football stadiums and swimming pools. “The real problem with these practical memorials, however, is that some are not so practical anymore,” Levitch says. “Some of these buildings were great and grandiose, but now they are white elephants.”
Some dilapidated World War I monuments have already been razed. Others have been vandalized or stolen. Levitch hopes the World War I Memorial Inventory Project will aid in the preservation of these neglected monuments. “The first step to preservation is documentation,” he says.
The public can aid the organization’s effort by contributing a listing for a monument through the World War I Memorial Inventory Project website or its Facebook page. “In smaller places, there is no way of finding out about these memorials unless people go out and hit the pavement,” Levitch says. In addition to names and locations, the project seeks to gather exhaustive information about the country’s memorials, including inscriptions, physical conditions and documents such as memorial dedication programs and newspaper articles covering their construction. “I want the inventory to be more substantive than just a list,” Levitch says. “I hope that people and students will do research on the names that are inscribed and on the memorials themselves.” The organization hopes to have the updated database online soon to allow users to see which memorials or information is currently missing.
Levitch hopes the project will also help World War I to emerge from the historical shadows cast by the Civil War and World War II. “These memorials are great reminders of how momentous World War I was. Cities such as Kansas City, Indianapolis, Baltimore and St. Louis built huge architectural undertakings that reflect how important it was to remember the war and those who fought in it,” he says. “The legacy of World War I is still very much with us in what’s going on in the world, and I hope this project makes the war more vital in some way.”