A New Memorial in an Old Park

It was known as ‘the Great War’, the ‘war to end all wars’, the first world war.  And now, after more than 100 years, the nationwide service of Americans is now fully commemorated in our nation’s capital.  On the famed Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., just across from the historic Willard Hotel and the White House Visitor’s Center, lies the World War I Memorial.  

If you’ve ever walked from Ford’s Theater to the White House, you’ll know the location.  The current memorial resides in what was formerly called Pershing Park in honor of the commander of American Expeditionary Forces in WWI – and for you history wonks, one of only two, six-star generals in American History – John J. “Black Jack” Pershing.  In fact, it builds on a memorial that already existed in Pershing Park, one dedicated to the American Expeditionary Forces in 1981.  Why, then, the change?  The current WWI Memorial unveiled in April of 2021 honors not just those doughboys who served abroad as the AEF Memorial does, but the nearly 4.7 million Americans who served their nation during the Great War, including the 116,516 who paid the supreme sacrifice.  It can be a forgotten truth that during WWI, much like it’s successor WWII, millions of Americans served and sacrificed both “Over There” and at home.  

The memorial itself is subtle, insightful, and incomplete.  The Memorial contains a statue of Pershing, a peace fountain, a cascade of water behind a poem excerpt from Archibald MacLeish’s “The Young Dead Soldiers Do Not Speak”, engraved quotes and references to war theaters, campaigns and battles in which American Forces participated; and exhibits about the role of the United States in WWI. 

The still to be completed portion?  Well, that will lend the memorial the typical gravitas of the memorials on the National Mall.  It’s central feature will be a sculpture titled “A Soldier’s Journey,” scheduled to be installed in 2024.  The 58’ long bas-relief sculpture will feature 38 figures depicting the journey of a recurring American soldier and representing the larger American experience of World War I.  

It’s all a fitting tribute, and as with so many memorials in our nation’s capital, the closer you look, the more questions you ask, the richer the story that can be told.  

With degrees in history and a background in education, tour guiding, and travel, Tim Smith serves as the Lead Guide for Global Travel Alliance and Global Guide contributor.

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