Memorials, Remembrances, and Mourning: WWI Monuments in the United States
World War I occupies an unsettled place in America’s historical consciousness. At the outset of the war Americans were eager to join the cause for the sake of patriotism and adventure, but trench warfare, unprecedented brutality, and mass devastation permanently altered the worldwide perception of battle, ushering in phrases such as “shell shock” for the first time. The drive to commemorate World War I was existential, and after the November 11, 1918 armistice, immediate.
Though American losses paled in comparison to the major European combatants, the deaths of 116,000 Americans in a remarkably short span -- almost all in 1918, at times nearing 1,000 a day, and most an ocean away -- traumatized the nation. As the nature of warfare itself changed, so too did our approach to commemorating soldiers fallen in battle. No single federal initiative to commission these monuments existed; instead, individual communities formed committees and raised funds to erect memorials in honor of the war dead. It is for this reason that many WWI memorials are still undocumented today, and that many have since fallen into disrepair due to neglect, theft, or vandalism.
Political and aesthetic debates rose up around this push to honor the fallen soldiers, including a movement from monuments that single out great men to those that feature honor rolls, and from traditional statue memorials to utilitarian, or “living memorials”, such as highways, parks, libraries, or bridges. Stakeholders included veterans, women’s associations, African Americans, and state and federal governments, as well as organizations such as the American Legion.
The memorialization of the First World War marked an important and enduring transformation of commemorative practices in the nation. The World War I memorial is typified by the “Doughboy” statue designed by Viquesney, which found a home in 140 towns in 35 states coast to coast, as much as it is by allegorical sculptures or York Avenue in New York City, which was named after Medal of Honor recipient sergeant Alvin York. Different interpretations of WWI itself emerge from these memorials, which offer a unique perspective on our collective history and understanding of The Great War.
- What drives memorialization of war?
- What are the central issues of WWI commemoration and remembrance?
- What role did veterans, women’s associations, African Americans, and state and federal governments have in deciding who, what, and how to memorialize WWI?
- How did WWI memorials differ from memorials erected in honor of earlier wars such as the Revolutionary War or the Civil War?
- What effect does the inclusion of the names of ordinary soldiers have on the impact of the memorial?
- What were the prevailing narratives surrounding soldiers and war, and how were these altered by the events of WWI? How do they compare to our contemporary narratives?
- Students will be able to trace and analyze the aesthetic and political debates surrounding WWI memorials
- Students will explore the historical context of WWI memorials in relation to memory, mourning, and remembrance
- Students will be able to define and understand how the disciplines of art history, literature, and politics converge on the subject of war memorials
- Students will be able to identify and analyze the larger societal shifts at work in the movement from monuments that single out great men to those that feature honor rolls, and from traditional statue memorials to utilitarian or “living memorials.”
- Students will be able to provide a well-supported, written analysis of a single WWI memorial, paying special attention to the abovementioned themes and questions
Students will write a 3-5/5-7 page paper analyzing the tension between one particular aesthetic and political debate surrounding the creation of WWI memorials. For example, the student could choose to explore the political implications of utilitarian memorials vs. traditional memorials.
3-5 class periods
- History and Social Studies > U.S.>Monuments & memorials--1910-1920.
- History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930).
- Art History > World War, 1914-1918--Art and the war.
- Critical analysis
- Critical thinking
- Historical analysis
- Formal analysis
- Making inferences and drawing conclusions
- Writing skills
The Digital Ark Corporation & The World War I Memorial Project
- Activity 1. Over There: The War in Context
- Activity 2. Where and When Did They Appear?
- Activity 3. Close Analysis of Monument Aesthetics
Activity 1. Over There: The War in Context
If time allows, consider using the following EDSITEment lesson plans to provide an overview of World War I: "A Documentary Chronology of World War I." (See in particular the Chronology of WWI) "The Images of War" as a general context of the power of war images. For further overview of the war, consider having students review the WWI Photoessay from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Modern American Poetry to gain a general sense of the Great War. Students might consider the following questions: What do these photos suggest about the mood of the new soldiers? The mood of the civilians? What is the overall feeling that these photos evoke? How would you describe the weaponry of the photos of "The Somme, 1916."?
Please note that some of these photos have potentially disturbing images of wounded and killed soldiers.
Activity 2. Where and When Did They Appear?World War I Memorials, including those that were mass-produced, began cropping up during the Inter-war period (1919-1939). The timeline feature allows students to trace the frequency with which statues were built during that time. Coupled with the map feature, this is a powerful tool that will give students a glimpse into the regions of the country with the highest concentration of memorials, and those that are more sparsely populated.
This activity gives students an opportunity to encounter a memorial within their community in person (if applicable), or, if not, to view high-resolution, 3-D photographs of memorials to simulate a real-life encounter.
Using the map resource on the World War I Memorial Project website, students will locate a nearby memorial (ideally one that has not yet been documented) and plan a visit, including route and logistics. Once at the site, the students will use photogrammetry technology to document 360 views of the monument and upload them to the WWI Memorial Project website. Afterward, ask the students to locate their monument on the timeline, or add an entry if that information has not yet been supplied.
Activity 3. Close Analysis of Monument Aesthetics
Referring back to the Assessment that connected political ideologies to aesthetic expression, students will have the opportunity to gain a more detailed understanding of the principles that guide the creation of art and the design of 3D art objects (such as sculptures and memorials) in particular.
If time allows, consider using the following lesson plans provided by the J. Paul Getty Museum in order to give an overview of formal analysis and the basic principles of design:
Elements of Art: Understanding Formal Analysis. This is a broad overview of the basic elements of art, including lines, shape and form, space, color, and texture.
- Elements of Art: Principles of Design. Students will gain another introductory look at the building blocks of design such as symmetry, balance, asymmetry, emphasis, and movement.
- 360 degree virtual tour
- Build Your Own Monument app
Hand out the Formal Analysis Worksheets and break students into small groups so that they can spend time discussing the aesthetic elements of the monuments reviewed so far in class. Utilizing the Build Your Own Monument app and drawing from the lesson on formal analysis and the principles of design, ask them to work together to build a WWI memorial that best encapsulates a traditional American ideal such as democracy, freedom, sacrifice, or honor. Conversely, the student could choose to expose the tragedy and devastation of war. Regroup after twenty minutes for full class discussion of how the formal elements work in conversation with the political or ideological message of the monument.