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.”