War memorials are an important reminder of courage and sacrifice, and while the National Mall is full of such monuments, there is only one that serves as a tribute to the dead of the “Great War,” and more specifically, the fallen soldiers from the District of Columbia.
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary on June 28, 1914, was “a spark that set the world on fire.” The conflagration spread quickly until most of the nations of the world were drawn into ever-widening hostilities. Technological advances in warfare overpowered outmoded military tactics, and with only trenches for cover, foot soldiers died by the hundreds of thousands, being no match for long-range guns, tanks, and an especially terrible new invention, poison gas.
More than 15 million combatants died, including 535 from the District of Columbia. Their sacrifice is commemorate with a simple columned monument on the National Mall near Independence Avenue and 17th Street NW. The temple-like pavilion, just large enough
to hold the United States Marine Band’s 80 members, was dedicated by President Herbert Hoover on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1931. At the ceremony, men bared their heads in respect while the bugler played taps, and then John Philip Souza, who had come out of retirement for the occasion, led the band in “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”
The monument, which is now in a sad state of disrepair, is well worth saving. Public funds have recently been set aside for its restoration and the World War I Memorial Foundation is sponsoring an event to raise awareness of the littleknown site. Fittingly, the event will take place on Nov. 9, shortly before Armistice Day, at Woodrow Wilson House. The hope is that the monument’s restoration will be secure when it is formally designated as having national as well as local importance.
Memorials are symbols of the wars they commemorate. The black granite wall of the Vietnam Memorial is a dramatic gash in the earth that stands for the pain and disillusionment of a war that divided our country and was ultimately lost, yet the names of the thousands of American soldiers who died are carved in the wall, so that each and every one will be remembered.
The World War I Memorial tells a different story. The names of the fallen are carved in its white marble base beneath the plaque that says “The Great War for Civilization.” The soldiers went into battle to fight for that cause and their mission was deemed accomplished. It is only in retrospect, after all, that we call it “World War I,” since at the time no one could imagine that the horrors of war on such a grand scale would ever be repeated.
As the people of a busy city swirl by, a quiet icon of symmetry and balance waits to be saved. While the monument serves as a reminder of the losses of war, the graceful marble temple is also a rebuke of cynicism and a tribute to bravery and heroism. These ancient ideals deserve to be saved, and so does the memorial that honors them.