The National World War I Memorial is located just east of the White House in Washington, DC, at Pennsylvania Ave and 14th Street. It is immediately across the street from the Treasury Department and, on the other corner, the White House Visitor Center.
The official “unveiling” of the park occurred on April 16, 2021, however, the final installation will not take place until 2024. Since 1981, the site has been known as Pershing Park with a statue of U.S. Army General John Pershing, who commanded all U.S. forces in Europe during the war.
The central feature of the memorial is a 58-foot-long sculpture called “A Soldier’s Journey” which uses 38 figures to depict the experience of a typical U.S. soldier from pre-war to post-war with all the heroism and horror in between. This piece is being fabricated offsite and will be installed sometime next year. This will mark the completion of the monument.
In place of the sculpture is a two-dimensional print showing the figures that will appear. Here is a photo of that:
There is a panel in front of this wall that describes the artist’s process:
In front of you is an illustration of the sculpture that will be installed in this space in 2024. “A Soldier’s Journey” depicts a series of scenes based on the myth of “the hero’s journey,” in which a recurring figure of an American soldier embarks on a quest, wins victory in an epic struggle, and comes home changed by his passage through peril. The soldier also represents, on a second level, the American experience of World War I. This illustration shows the artistic process from initial sketch, to clay sculpture, to finished bronze.
The sculpture is the work of Sabin Howard, who together with architect Joseph Weishaar won the competition to redesign Pershing Park as a national World War I memorial. Howard began by viewing thousands of photographs of the war. He then brought actors and models into his studio, where he posed them in scenes inspired by his research. Rather than putting them into static, artificial poses, he gave them stage directions to move through a scene, and then captured the motion in more than 12,000 pictures.
Howard then selected and assembled images into a series of tableaus similar to what is before you. As Howard took new photos and revised the images, the story evolved. The process culminated in a six-foot-long scale model or “maquette” of the proposed sculpture.
Once the maquette was approved, Howard re-shot every figure in a rig holding 160 high-speed digital cameras. Working with Pangolin Editions foundry and Steve Russell Studios, Howard generated 3-D computer images from the terabytes of digital data. Pangolin then created full-scale polyurethane versions of the images, which formed the armatures for the sculpture. This process, which took about 15 months to complete, would have taken six years using traditional methods.
Howard then applied clay to the armatures and began sculpting the figures. As each of four sections is completed, it is cast in bronze. When all four sections have been cast, they will be re-assembled and shipped here for installation.
A Soldier’s Journey is placed opposite the Pershing statue, each on a “short” side of the rectangle that forms the grounds of the memorial. On the long north side is a slightly elevated viewing platform called a “belvedere” which I’ve learned is “an architectural feature providing a particularly scenic view.” Encircling the exterior of the Belvedere are listed the names of the campaigns in which U.S. forces participated during the war.
- Somme Defensive
- Somme Offensive
- Saint Mihiel
- Vittorio Veneto
- North Russia
- Atlantic Convoys
- Western Atlantic
- North Sea
Opposite the Belvedere is a long-polished granite wall. On the interior side are three panels of text with two maps in between. Here is the text from the panels:
On 6 April 1917, the United States entered World War I. With few regular forces the task of training and transporting an effective army to fight in France was formidable. The U.S. Navy, acting swiftly to combat the German submarine menace, dispatched fighting ships and aircraft to European waters. Simultaneously, it began the organization of convoys for hundreds of thousands of troops to undertake the tremendous work of organizing the American Expeditionary Forces. General Pershing landed in France on 13 June 1917.
Beginning on 21 March 1918, the German armies launched a series of powerful attacks on the Western Front. On that date, there were only 300,000 American soldiers in France, most of them partially trained. The first offensive action by a U.S Division came on 28 May when Cantigny was attacked and held despite violent enemy reaction.
Simultaneously, the Germans surged across the Aisne River and advanced rapidly towards the Marne. U.S. reinforcements hurriedly brought into positions directly across the German path of advance toward Paris, stopped the attack. Then, on 6 June, U.S. troops, including a brigade of Marines, struck back, and in fierce combat lasting a month, recaptured Belleau Wood and the town of Vaux. The last great German offensive of the war came on 15 July along the Marne east of Chateau-Thierry. It was promptly repulsed in a severe struggle in which American troops played a leading part. The immediate U.S. French counterattack on 18 July at Soissons marked the turning point of the war.
The Meuse-Argonne Campaign
Thereupon the U.S. First Army was organized as a separate and distinct American army with its own assigned sector. As General Pershing had insisted from the beginning. Under his command, on 12 September, it assaulted the St. Mihiel Salient which had withstood all attacks for 4 years. By 16 September the salient was eliminated. Ten days later, the First Army launched the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Suddenly conceived, hurried in plan and preparation, and brilliantly executed, this battle, in which over 1,000,000 American soldiers fought, stands out as one of the greatest achievements in the history of American arms.
During October also, U.S. troops had seized Blanc Mont Ridge and General Pershing had organized the U.S. Second Army which entered the line on the right of the First. On other battlefields, Americans serving with the British armies had attacked in August near Ypres, Belgium, and had taken part in the Somme Offensive in September, near St. Quentin. They had broken through the Hindenburg Line. During October, their advance continued, and November saw U.S. units advancing further into Belgium. Elsewhere, Americans served with distinction in Italy, Northern Russia, and Siberia.
During the war the Air Service was expanded into a striking force which supported the ground troops and gave promise of the vital role that our air forces would play in the future. At the signing of the Armistice on 11 November 1918, more than 2,000,000 Americans were serving in Europe, either with the combat forces or in the Services of Supply whose unheralded work made possible the brilliant achievements of the armies in the field.
The Western Front
During September 1918 the Allied forces launched a general offensive on the Western Front. In this operation, the U.S. First Army was assigned the task of breaking through the extremely strong and vital defense system between the Meuse River and the Argonne Forest. The attack started on 26 September and after two days of intense fighting, the dominant hill of Montfaucon was captured. The German troops stubbornly defended each position but by 30 September had been driven back six miles.
On 4 October the assault was renewed. The resistance encountered was desperate with the enemy rapidly pouring in more divisions from other battle fronts. Though subjected to furious counterattacks, the advance continued relentlessly. On the left flank, a brilliant attack in the Aire Valley made possible the capture of the Argonne Forest. On the right, U.S. and French troops crossed the Meuse where severe fighting ensued for possession of the heights beyond. Another assault on 14 October developed into a prolonged struggle against violent resistance but these attacks near Cunel and Romagne broke through the German main line of defense and penetrated that line beyond the villages of St. Juvin and Grandpre.
The last great offensive began on 1 November with the capture of the formidable position on Barricourt Heights. Three days later the enemy was in full retreat west of the Meuse, continuously pursued on both sides of the river. These successes and those of our allies compelled the Germans to ask for an immediate armistice which became effective 11 November 1918.
At other places are inspirational quotes that include:
“Whether our lives and our deaths were for peace and a new home or for nothing we cannot say; it is you who must say this. They say: we leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning. We were young, they say. We have died. Remember us.”
“Never before have men crossed the seas to a foreign land to fight for a cause which they did not pretend was peculiarly their own, but knew was the cause of humanity and mankind.”
President Woodrow Wilson
“If this world must become embroiled in a tremendous ‘War to End Wars,’ I am glad that I, too, may play a part in it.”
Alta May Andrews
“They were mortal, but they were unconquerable.”
The National World War I Memorial is an important addition to our inventory of monuments and is long overdue. It is significant in size and combines an effective mix of text and visuals (once the final piece is installed) in a prime location. Next time you are in Washington, make a point of visiting it. Completely outdoors, it’s open 24 hours per day.