As Monuments Are Rediscovered, So Too Should Context

Wayside Cross honoring the WW1 dead from Baltimore County, Maryland.

Wayside Cross honoring the WW1 dead from Baltimore County, Maryland.

From the time I was a young child in the early 1970s, I became aware of a very small but striking monument in the heart of my hometown that honored the dead from a conflict that had taken place a long, long time before.  This was the wayside cross memorial in Towson, Maryland, erected in the 1920s, which paid tribute to those from Baltimore County who had given their lives in “The World War.”

The wayside cross in Towson always seemed a bit out of place to me amid the busy shopping district with its hurrying passers-by and bustling traffic.  Indeed, the memorial stood just a few feet outside a street entrance to Hutzler’s department store which had opened in the 1950s and was in many ways the centerpiece of the downtown area.  In fact, the monument often seemed “lost” amid the commercial landscape, with few seeming to take much notice of it – its bronze plaques listing the names of the long-forgotten dead had darkened with time and the simple black iron fence at its base appeared like something from another age.

My early impressions of World War I, and with them the context of my hometown’s wayside cross, were shaped by the times in which I grew up.  The generation of World War II and Korea were still very much in their prime and the turbulence of the 1960s had redefined our worldview; World War I – the “war to end all wars” – was something with which only very elderly people seemed to be connected, and they were few and far-between.  My childhood next-door-neighbor, a soft-spoken, white-haired old gentleman in my earliest recollections, had been a Doughboy in 1918 serving in the Signal Corps in France; from what I could learn his war had been one of horse-drawn transport, mustard gas, shell shock, and going “over the top.”  Being within reception of several Washington, DC television stations, I can recall an early 1970s commercial advertising tours of the Woodrow Wilson House set to the tune “It’s A Long Way to Tipperary” played softly on a piano.  It all seemed so quaint when compared with complex modern times, and that simple wayside cross monument with its dignified, almost under-stated message, appeared very much a product of a bygone era.

Over the years, as I learned more about the First World War, I came to recognize these memorials in my travels, and to appreciate them not only for their intended purpose, but for their great variety of forms.   In contrast with the simple wayside cross of my hometown, statues were erected in various parts of the country ranging in size and complexity from variations on the familiar “Spirit of the American Doughboy” by sculptor E.M. Viquesney, groups of figures representing soldiers, sailors and airmen, to large bronzes depicting Joan of Arc on horseback.  In some locales, elaborate structures were built, such as the Newport News Victory Arch which resembles the Arc de Triumph in Paris, the temple-like Maryland War Memorial Building in Baltimore, and the Liberty Memorial tower in Kansas City.

WW1 Memorial in Gloucester, Massachussetts depicting Joan of Arc

WW1 Memorial in Gloucester, Massachussetts depicting Joan of Arc

With the coming centenary of the First World War, monuments across the United States are now being “rediscovered” in the towns and cities where they have stood in many cases for nearly 90 years.  In some instances these monuments have been restored from states of disrepair; in others there have been actual rediscoveries of plaques and tablets that had been tucked away and forgotten, and communities have sought to bring these monuments back into the public view.

The rediscovery and reconnection with the context of these memorials, indeed, the enrichment of our national collective memory of The Great War, is the central focus of the World War 1 Centennial Network.  By promoting our diverse strengths and areas of expertise, the member organizations of the Network can create and cross-promote dynamic public programs, exhibitions, tours, publications and media programs that capture the imagination of Americans and place them in touch with the broader meaning behind the memorials and monuments left behind by the generation that went “over there.”





  1. David Thompson says:

    I tripped across a blog by Dr. Christopher Gehrz, Chair of the History Department at Bethel University in St. Paul, MN, who specializes in WW I History and writes a blog about WW I. He wrote a blog on WW I war memorials in Minnesota and focused on the WW I Memorial on the State Capitol grounds. The disparate statistical treatment of MN WW I veterans who were not part of the AEF triggered my statistical research, with my attention drawn to a low-ball figure of Minnesota WW I veterans who served in WW I from Minnesota (see: ).

    The Memorial to WW I veterans at the MN State Capitol (outside of the MN Department of Veterans Affairs Building) is dedicated to only to 57,413 Minnesotans who served in WW I (mentioned in the above-mentioned blog) …not the 118,497 Minnesotans who actually served in WW I (failing to recognize 61,084 Minnesota WW I veterans who served in WW I).

    I then consulted with the Minnesota Historical Society, the Ramsey County Historical Society (that covers St. Paul, MN where the state capitol is located) and the Minnesota Military Museum and they all concurred with the numbers of MN veterans who served and those lost in WW I:

    The sources used are: Minnesota in the War with Germany by Franklin, Appel, Lina and Solon, Vol 1 & 2 (1932) and the Minnesota Centennial book, Muskets to Missiles: A Military History of Minnesota (1958) by Virginia Brainard Kunz. Both corroborate the following data:

    Total Minnesota veterans who served in WW I: 118,497.

    Army 104,416
    Navy 11,236
    USMC 2,845

    Killed or died of wounds: 1,432

    Army 1,319
    Navy 8
    USMC 105

    Died of disease: 2,175

    Army 2,024
    Navy 137
    USMC 14

    Total WW I Minnesota war deaths in WW I: 3,607 (1,432 KIA and 2,175 died of disease…mostly the Great Flu Pandemic in the fall of 1918).

    Of the 4.7 million that served in US forces in WW I (2 million served with AEF Army and Marine Corps units in France & 2.7 million with the Navy & Coast Guard serving at sea & US Naval Bases… and with Army & Marine Corps units in CONUS training camps), 118,497 Minnesota veterans served in WW I (2.5% of all American WW I forces).

    I then contacted Dr. Gehrz at Bethel University about the discrepancy and he responded to the sharp differences in reported numbers of WW I Minnesota veterans who served in The Great War as inscribed on the WW I Memorial at the State Capitol: Dr. Gehrz responded by saying:

    “Thanks for digging into this a bit. As I wrote there (in the blog), my guess (not having Kunz’s book at hand) is that her number refers to all Minnesotans mobilized, while the plaque counts those who actually saw combat or at least reached France. That accords with the basic proportion for the entire military: about half of those who volunteered or were conscripted had actually reached France at the time of Armistice. (American commanders expected the Germans to hold out until 1919 or 1920.) If true, it’s not a matter of “wild” inaccuracy so much as a commemorative choice of what kind of service to honor (perhaps the wrong choice).”

    I in turn responded to Dr. Gehrz:

    “Makes sense to me. The rest of the WW I story never made it on many of our memorials and never was added to our history books for close to 100 years. It does not include nor adequately honor, out of the 4.7 million who served in WW I, the 2.7 million WW I servicemen who did not serve in the AEF (all the US Navy and US Coast Guard WW I veterans that did convoy duty across the Atlantic Ocean… and all those soldiers and sailors in training bases in the US….and the 30,000 that died here in the US in WW I to the flu…52,199 if you include AEF flu victims…58,000 if you include deaths to all diseases).

    More soldiers than all those who have died in the Continental US since the Civil War died of the flu in the United States in WW I (yet they are not included in this exclusive and narrow AEF WW I narrative on our war memorials and in our history books). Minnesota’s 2,326 disease casualties (80% of the 1918 flu) eclipses MN AEF combat casualties of 1,432, by more than 1.5 times, yet that story is largely skipped in the World War I narrative on monuments and in history books in Minnesota dealing with the era.

    According to John Lindsey, Director of the Ramsey County Historical Society (St. Paul, MN), it was very common after the war to in many areas not count those or honor those at all who did not serve in the AEF on many of our war memorials or in museums and history books. They were excluded from any honors or recognition after the WW I. Evidently non-AEF veterans didn’t feel like they could make a big protest about the way they were treated in memorialization after the war, since many of them never got to the war in Europe. They just packed it up and went home and tipped their hat at the guys who fought in the trenches in France with the AEF.

    The Ramsey County Historical Society Director, John Lindsey said: “Even before World War I was over, in the U.S. Army, for sure, there was a very evident bias toward those who had served in France. The visible symbol for this attitude was the rule regarding the wearing of the Sam Browne belt. Only officers who had served overseas were authorized to wear the belt in the U.S., which was copied, as I remember, from the British uniform.”

    I then responded to him: The Sam Browne Belt stuff is very interesting. The bias of honoring only combat vets still is with us today (why we have an American Legion starting up in 1919 which included all war veterans and the VFW only included AEF WW I veterans from “foreign wars”).

    You see this also today in the Army, especially with combat unit patches on soldiers who served in combat units (though you could be in a post office or forward deployed rear area supply center and never experience a shot fired in anger) and those who have not been in combat have none. Soldiers want a combat patch, not because they like combat, but it increases their status and treatment in the Army culture. The Combat Infantryman’s Badge (CIB) denoting you have been under fire in combat in the Army is still a prize possession for an Army soldier that they put on their uniform chest that sets them apart culturally from all other solders…even though it was the luck of the draw to get assigned to the infantry branch and a combat unit where you get shot at, compared to those who do not (WW I was made up of 77 % draftees who had no choice in the matter of where they served in the Army).

    However, as the WW I Centennial is being planned, there was a unique problem in honoring only AEF troops and excluding those from recognition who did not serve in the AEF. CONUS solders and sailors who died of the flu while in service, over 30,000 in CONUS bases and on ships, no one memorialized them or recognized them or their families after the war for 100 years! Yet a big deal is made of a AEF soldier who went to France and served with 2 million AEF troops under General Pershing, even if they were never shot at while unloading ships or running AEF supply centers. Geography was everything in what kind of veteran service should be valued or remembered in WW I… and in all our subsequent wars since WW I in the 20th and 21st Centuries. It really is a strange phenomenon.

    As the WW I Centennial nears, because of so many CONUS deaths of servicemen and nurses in WW I who died due to the flu in the United States (30,000), attention is directed anew to honoring CONUS servicemen in WW I. You did not have to go to France to die in WW I …they died by the bushel-ful in the Army and Navy stateside bases in WW I…yet that is not included in the main-line WW I war narrative that we commemorate or memorialize about WW I.

    More troops died in CONUS in WW I than died in the United States since the Civil War…and they are not even memorialized in our history books nor found on WW I monuments at all, like the one in St. Paul, MN., because these CONUS solders and sailors did not serve in the AEF.

    The number of soldiers and sailors killed in the United States in WW I is almost equal to the number of all US service personnel killed in the Korean War that we memorialize regularly and have a war memorial in Washington, DC dedicated to them…and we say nothing about these WW I soldiers and sailors that died in the United States this way in numbers equal to those who died in the Korean War (see: ).

    Or you can look at our wars in a different way, comparing battle casualties to non-battle casualties, taking out the CONUS or Foreign service distinction, and the non-battle casualties statistics compared to battle casualties: The numbers are truly stunning (see: ).

    Of the 1,014,992 total deaths of veterans from the Mexican War to the Persian Gulf War, 568,793 were battle related deaths and 446,199 were non-battle casualties (disease and accidents). Non-battle causalities from the Mexican War thorough the Persian Gulf War (19th & 20th Centuries) represent 44% of all American military war deaths in two centuries of warfare… rarely mentioned in our history books, museums, or inscribed on our monuments.

    In the 19th Century, during the Mexican War, Civil War, and Spanish American War, non-battle casualties exceeded battle casualties by 95,176 out of 360,240 war deaths (142,532 combat related deaths and 237,708 non-combat related deaths in the Civil War…largely caused by disease).

    In the 20th Century, in WW I, WW II, Korean, Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars, 208,491 were non-combat casualties out of 634,752 war dead… 33% of all American war dead in the 20th Century being non-combat deaths; yet they are rarely mentioned in our battle centric combat accounts of our wars.

    In WW I, 53,402 died in combat compared to 63,114 due to non-combat; in WW II 291, 557 died due to combat compared to 113,842 to non-combat; in the Korean War 33,731 died to combat compared to 20,515 to non-combat; in the Vietnam War 47,424 died due to combat compared to 10,785 to non-combat; and in the Persian Gulf War 147 died to combat and 235 to non-combat.

    You would have a hard time filling one shelf on a bookshelf telling this story of non-combat deaths in CONUS… or non-combat deaths in CONUS and our war theaters combined, compared to whole libraries dedicated to tell the combat story of a war.

    These are the forgotten solders, sailors, airmen, and marines of our wars, not properly honored or memorialized in our history books, museums or on our monuments. We have a hard time inclusively putting these two issues together to tell a holistic story of a war… and it shows (or actually doesn’t show) by what we see in our history books, museums and on our war memorials.

    If we don’t tell the stories of these non-combat casualties in all theaters, nor the non-combat deaths of CONUS veterans in our wars, these veterans are forgotten to the nation, though rarely to their families who grieve their son’s/daughter’s deaths who died this way. As a culture, we don’t offer much sympathy to a family of a serviceman who dies of a disease or an accident in CONUS or even in a war zone. There is no glory in dying in bed or being killed in a training accident non-combat air crash during a war. It is a very peculiar bias we bring to how we tell our war stores to the nation and memorialize our veterans who mad the ultimate sacrifice while in service to our country during wartime service. Both kinds of veterans and their families should be honored (and families helped) for this ultimate sacrifice while serving our country. Somehow, we need to do better for the WW I Centennial.