Posts Tagged ‘World War I’

As I write this, it is Memorial Day, the “real” Memorial Day, or Decoration Day, as it was originally known.  First observed in 1868, Decoration Day was celebrated on May 30 and began as a day of remembrance dedicated to the men who fell during the Civil War.

As a child, I was always invited over to see the old lady who lived next door to get my birthday bouquet on Decoration Day.  She was allowed to call it that; she must have been born just after the Civil War and her grandfather was born when George Washington was president.  I believe she had a photograph of the 8th Regiment of Wisconsin Volunteers in her house, a photo that included their mascot, Old Abe, a bald eagle, which sticks in my memory.  We shoveled her walk for her and that’s when I learned to call the bit of walk that goes from the sidewalk to the street in front of a house the horse block. She even had a hitching post there, though no horse. And no, I’m not that old, but she was.

Anyway, after World War I, Memorial Day became a day on which to remember all war dead.  And as we know, it marks the unofficial beginning of summer, and therefore biking weather.  (OK, I know lots of people were riding all winter, but I don’t like to ride in rain or wind.)  As the weather has permitted in this very wet May, I’ve been out biking again and I recently ran across a World War I memorial in St. Paul.

This simple but dignified memorial stands tall looking out across the Mississippi River near the University of St. Thomas campus. It is a beautiful spot, out of the way or traffic, and there is a pleasant park there that seemed to be enjoyed by numerous bikers, walkers, and students. All in all, a peaceful place to contemplate the river (or the memorial), read a book, and just enjoy the surroundings.

St. Paul World War I memorial overlooking Mississippi River

That brings me to another World War I war memorial, a far more extensive one (and one that can also be reached by Minneapolis’s wonderful system of bike paths.)

Last year (June 11, 2011, to be exact), Hennepin County rededicated Victory Memorial Drive, the largest World War I war memorial in the country. I often find memorials of all kinds to be uninspired and uninspiring, but this is a living memorial: an elm tree was planted for every soldier or nurse from Hennepin County who died in the war, a total of 568. In addition, there is a monument that rises above the drive at the corner Victory Memorial Drive and 45thAvenue North in Minneapolis.

Part of the line of trees and markers that make up Victory Memorial Drive.

The memorial’s history is tied up with the history of parks in Minneapolis and two men who planned and developed an enviable park system: Charles Loring and Theodore Wirth. Loring had been president of the park board and had wanted to build a memorial to American soldiers and sailors consisting of trees planted along Minneapolis parkways, even before the Great War. In 1919, Theodore Wirth, Minneapolis’s far-sighted park superintendent, suggested planting rows of elm trees along what was then Camden-Glenwood Parkway. He described the idea in the 1918 Annual Report:

In formal gardening there is nothing more beautiful than long parallel rows of stately trees. If planted far enough apart to permit each tree to become a fully developed specimen, they will in time become giants of strength and beauty. What better or more noble symbol of the strength and character of our victorious soldiers could be chosen to serve as a memorial to the fallen heroes and noble defenders of our liberty? Glenwood-Camden Parkway, between Lowry Avenue and Camden Park, a distance of three miles, lends itself well for the creation of such a Memorial Drive.

Loring agreed to pay for the trees and deposited $50,000 for their perpetual care. Victory Memorial Drive was dedicated on June 11, 1921, possibly a record time for the completion of a significant memorial.

The trees have been replaced more than once. The first variety of elms couldn’t stand up to Minnesota’s winters and were replaced in 1925. Many were killed off in the 1970s by Dutch Elm disease, so there is now a variety of species represented.

The original wooden crosses for each soldier were also replaced. On the tenth anniversary of the end of the war in 1928, bronze crosses and stars of David, each with the name of a soldier, were installed.

Bronze plaque for Leo Leonard Levin. Not all the Hennepin County soldiers were Norwegian Lutherans.

For me the most powerful detail of the memorial is in the stonework that leads to the wall with the original plaques listing all the names. If you look carefully, you can see the profile of a soldier cut into the stone. For me this evokes the image of nameless troops – French, British, American – going “over the top” of the trenches in France and facing the brutal reality of warfare.

Detail of Victory Memorial Drive stone work. Note the soldier profiles cut into the stone.

We are quickly approaching the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the carnage of 1914-1918. I hope that the observances of such a somber anniversary will include a nuanced telling of the many stories of World War I: bravery, yes, but also the folly of leaders and their belief that the war would be “over by Christmas”, the loss of civil liberties at home, the ghastly damage of nerve gas and shell shock, and the individual stories of the men who fought and the people here at home. We need to understand World War I in order to understand many of the conflicts that still persist in the world to this day.  It would be nice if we could remember and acknowledge the mistaken assumptions and cruel waste of past conflicts as we remember those who were lost and killed.


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