At the time no one knew to call it World War One. In the mid-1910s it was widely termed the ‘Great War’ and later the ‘War To End All Wars,’ an especially ironic name given the role contemporary historians have argued WWI played in precipitating WWII. In fact the History Channel recently aired a three-part series treating the period from the mid-1910s through the mid-1940s as single era of warfare. This way of remembering World War I, as but a small part of a larger history, is common throughout the United States, although in sharp contrast to much of the rest of the English-speaking world. Indeed, as Yale University Professor Jay Winter notes in his book Remembering War: The Great War Between Memory and History in the Twentieth Century, “Australians still make the pilgrimage to Gallipoli” while “the death of the last veterans of the Great War in Canada is front-page news, and poppy sales in Britain each November are robust.” Three Mid-Atlantic sites show how Americans instead tend to forget WWI.
One of the earliest efforts to honor local soldiers who died during the Great War took place in Atlantic City, a circular memorial championed by political boss Enoch Johnson and completed in 1923. The Greek Temple Monument contains the names of major European battlefields on the exterior, while the interior includes a dedication as well as an eight-foot tall statue of lady ‘Liberty in Distress’ that was installed in 1929. The statue itself reminds me a bit of a Rodin sculpture as its meaning seems to shift depending on the angle from which it is viewed. The main figure is most prominent from the front and back, but when the piece is viewed from the sides the emphasis shifts to babies and the bodies of war dead. Yet it is the battlefield names that stand out most, perhaps because my first memory of the monument is as a child in the 1980s when it still stood as the center of a roundabout at the intersection of the main street of Atlantic City and a major tourist route into the town. Indeed for over seventy-years visitors and locals alike were constantly reminded of the war. In the mid-1990s the traffic pattern was changed, the adjacent high school built in 1923 was demolished, and the WWI monument was folded into an all wars memorial park that includes MIA stones and statues dedicated in 1916 to Civil War ‘Soldiers and Sailors.’
An alternative form of public memory of World War I is preserved at the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater-Kent (where I spent the last year working as Temple’s Davis Public History Fellow). At a museum that displays a bust of Ben Franklin, George Washington’s pocket watch, and William Penn’s shaving bowl, the most popular object on student tours was invariably the taxidermied Philly the Dog. A WWI veteran, and the subject of a Travel Channel ‘Mysteries of the Museum’ segment, Philly served as regimental mascot for the 315th Army Reserve Unit, which existed from 1917 to 1995 and was primarily made up of men from the Philadelphia area.
Following her heroic service in WWI, Philly lived with a vet from her unit until her death in 1932 at which point he and his comrades decided to preserve her body. When the 315th disbanded Philly was donated to the museum, where she served as the centerpiece of a 1997 exhibit on the unit that included “a variety of other 315th memorabilia, helmet, bullets, gas mask, and dog tags” according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Yet following the 2012 re-opening of the museum, Philly was removed from her military context and relocated (as one of many objects with stories to tell) next to late 19th century toys and Mummers memorabilia thus obscuring her World War I origins.
World War I is obscured in a very different way at the Smithsonian Museum of American History exhibit entitled ‘The Price of Freedom’, where it but briefly appears between two much more extensive displays on the Civil War and World War II. The exhibit includes its own taxidermied dog, Stubby, as well as artifacts portraying trench warfare, chemical weapons, and injured veterans, yet its relatively small size reflects a primary way in which Americans tend to view the Great War, as but a minor aspect of our history. When I visited this site with a Temple history department graduate seminar on War and Society many students were critical of the manner in which the exhibit was laid out, allowing visitors to avoid the more problematic periods in our history. Yet what I remember most clearly was when an Irish-born classmate strolled right past the display (which we later named “WWI corner”) and reacted with horror, as any European might, at the way that the Great War was marginalized in this exhibit. Across the Mall in Washington, at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, World War I is much more fully represented in a exhibit entitled ‘Legend, Memory, and the Great War in the Air’, yet the most extensive WWI display in America by far is a thousand miles away at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.