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A memorial to D.C.’s World War I dead sinks into the trenches.
Brenda Hattery’s grandfather served in World War I. In keeping with a cliche from that era, she says, he never stopped talking about having seen Paris with his own eyes—even though he hardly ever left West Virginia again for the rest of his life. Hattery thinks about him every time she sees the tiny World War I memorials outside her house on 16th Street NW.
Hattery, though, may be one of the few people for whom a stroll down 16th Street conjures up thoughts about the Great War. It used to be a different story. The American Legion planted 507 trees along the street in 1920 to serve as a “living memorial” to the 507 District residents killed during America’s 1917-1918 foray into the conflict. But most of the trees have long since died. And all but a couple of the bronze plaques identifying D.C.’s casualties have been stolen over the years.
Today, the concrete bases, which originally marked each memorial tree, are flush with the earth. Originally sticking 6 inches out of the ground and intended to hold flowers and flags, most remaining markers are obscured by grass. “It does bother me that people don’t know that they’re memorials and run over them with their lawn mowers,” says Hattery, a mechanical engineer for the Federal Railroad Administration.
It bothered her even more on a recent spring day when a construction crew was about to tear into some of the remaining markers with a backhoe. The workers were making the sidewalk more handicapped-accessible.
“They had not been informed by the city that there were any such monuments along the route,” explains Hattery. And when she called an official with the D.C. Department of Public Works, he didn’t know about the memorials, either. In fact, no one will take responsibility for the memorials, or what’s left of them.
“I’ve just somehow assumed, since I’ve never seen any of them, that they didn’t exist anymore,” says Charles Atherton, secretary of the D.C. Fine Arts Commission, the federal board responsible for reviewing the design and location of memorials in the District. “It might be the Department of Public Works (DPW) who has ultimate responsibility for them. My guess is that nobody knows who it is.”
Bill Rice, spokesperson for DPW’s Transportation Division, says that DPW doesn’t check with preservation agencies unless the department is working in a designated historic district. Responding to a call about the World War I memorials, he says the agency has recently warned staffers that they’re working in a sacred place. “We have now given specific instructions to our people and our contractors not to damage them and, in fact, to make them visible,” says Rice. “We certainly want to preserve whatever historic thing we come across, big and small.”
But the fate of the World War I memorials presents yet another contrast between hometown D.C. and federal Washington. Even as Hattery waged her lonely battle to educate DPW’s backhoe drivers about the shrine underfoot, organizers were hard at work planning the Veteran’s Day groundbreaking for the World War II memorial championed by Tom Hanks and Bob Dole. Smack-dab in the middle of the National Mall, the monument will cost $100 million—and it certainly won’t have plaques that any old commuter can rip off.
The most moving impromptu memorial I know of is in Petaluma, Calif., where a couple of drunk teenagers drove their car into a tree about 15 years ago. For a while, rather than leaving flowers at the site of the crash, friends took turns punching the tree to punish it for having killed their friends.
The tree had originally been planted as a memorial to the town’s World War I dead.
D.C.’s memorial to the Great War followed the same arboreal theme, on a larger scale. That was appropriate. The District sent 26,000 of its men and women into service, nearly 8 percent of the 334,000 residents it had in the 1910 census. The District was “the first city to complete its registration, the first to complete serial registration for the draft, and the first to announce results of its lottery,” the Washington Star boasted in 1919.
When the Legion planted its Norway maples along 16th Street a year later, much of that stretch was relatively undeveloped. The memorial trees were planted close together, creating an unbroken canopy along 16th Street, as pictured in the February 1932 issue of American Forest magazine. “It used to look beautiful on Decoration Day,” World War I veteran Rudolph Blick told the Washington Daily News in 1959. “All up 16th Street you’d see American flags and poppies next to the trees.”
And the living memorial did more than just honor the dead. It also helped build the city. The colonial revival houses that line 16th Street were mostly built in the ’20s and ’30s, after the trees were planted.
“They helped the 16th Street corridor, as you got closer to Maryland, have what downtown had: a fully landscaped street into the city,” explains Richard Busch of the D.C. Heritage Tourism Coalition.
But as the war faded into history, maintaining the stretch of trees and plaques grew trickier. The Legion had set up slot machines in federal office buildings and used the take for maintenance of the memorials. But a legal ruling in the early ’50s banned the machines. According to contemporary press accounts, the veterans group the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Day Corp. subsequently took over responsibility but never managed to scrape together the modest funds needed to care for the memorial. The city also refused requests for help.
By the ’50s, the plaques were already being stolen from their markers, according to newspaper stories from the time. “The American Legion had no way of knowing that bronze would become such a valuable commodity that people would come and strip them off,” explains D.C. historian Alexander M. Padro, whose Washington’s Monuments will be published in September.
Still, in 1952, the District was sensitive enough to the plight and the significance of the trees that it scrapped a plan to widen 16th Street.
“We moved into the District because of the history,” says Hattery, a native of Indiana. Without much prompting, she will rattle off the story of the Civil War battle at nearby Fort Stevens or tell about a recently deceased neighbor who had been one of the first African-American librarians at the Library of Congress.
When Hattery and her husband bought their 1926 house seven years ago, they were told about the local World War I memorials by Larry Chatman, then the head of the 16th Street Heights Civic Association. Not all of their neighbors are so well-informed.
“I didn’t know a thing about it,” says a neighbor who lives across the street from Hattery. “You’d think that would be something they mentioned in the promotion or sales of the houses.” Just steps from the neighbor’s house is one of the few markers still possessed of its plaque. Although scuffed and tarnished, the 3-inch-by-3-inch badge clearly reads as a memorial to Marine Charles A.R. Jacobs. Instead of identifying his tree, though, the plaque—still firmly attached to its concrete marker—rests next to a garbage can.
“It’s really disturbing there is no one to take ownership [of the memorials] and want to protect them,” Hattery says.
Campaigns to protect the ailing memorials, in fact, were launched—and scuttled—well before Hattery moved to the block. In the early ’80s, Washington Post columnist Bob Levey took up the cause after a reader brought it to his attention. Levey soon ran into resistance from the District government, which was then engaged in yet another 16th Street road-improvement effort.
“There was no real leadership behind the efforts,” Levey says. “I tried to involve the veterans groups in town, and they were interested right up to the moment when they had to devote real effort and time.” This time, however, government help may be on the way. D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp has sponsored a bill that would create a D.C. memorials commission, giving it responsibility for preserving the city’s monuments—and establishing funding streams for any new ones.
The new commission would actually have two different World War I memorials to look after. In 1986, Levey wrote that the trees and markers were “the only local memorial to the 507 D.C. servicemen killed in World War I,” but that isn’t the case. On the Mall, in an area between the Reflecting Pool and the Tidal Basin that the National Park Service calls Ash Woods, there’s a 60-foot-high marble memorial to the District’s World War I dead, dedicated by President Herbert Hoover in 1931. The names are etched alphabetically around the base, from Earl Adams to Harmon George Young.
The Ash Woods memorial hasn’t disappeared the same way 16th Street’s has. But it hasn’t exactly been treated like a shrine for the ages, either. The Park Service is in charge of light maintenance such as sweeping, whereas the District is responsible for major repairs, according to the Park Service. There are fractures along the pavement that surrounds the memorial, and plants grow through cracks in the memorial itself.
Only a handful of people—joggers, a tourist family that ignores the memorial while taking multiple pictures of a squirrel—pass by in the course of an hour. There are no signs or other guides. “Personally, I’ve never had anyone say, ‘Where’s the World War I memorial?’” says Matthew McNamer, who’s worked as a ranger on the Mall for the last three years. “It’s the opposite. They say, ‘We walked by that Greek-temple-looking thing—What’s that for?’”
That, in fact, is a pretty standard American reaction to information about World War I. Two decades after it was over, the “war to end all wars” was seen as a low-tech “prequel” to World War II. The earlier war didn’t provide a useful good-and-evil mythology like its successor; the names of Flanders fields, the Somme, and the Marne don’t resonate like Pearl Harbor, Normandy, and Iwo Jima, and certainly not like Auschwitz and Hiroshima.
Instead, like Vietnam, World War I was a conflict people wanted to forget rather than commemorate. Its literary legacy is nearly all anti-war, such as the novels All Quiet on the Western Front and Johnny Got His Gun.
“There are few satisfactory general histories of the war, perhaps because of the miseries and rancors it left behind,” British historian John Keegan writes toward the end of his best-selling The First World War. “The losers preferred to forget, while even among the victors there was little enthusiasm for recalling the events which had literally decimated their male populations.” CP