‘Lest we forget’
NEW ULM — A World War I speaker series continued Thursday night with a presentation from Bethel University historian Christopher Gehrz “Lest We Forget: WWI Memorials.”
The phrase “Lest We Forget” appears on many WWI memorials, Gehrz said. It’s a promise to remember those lost in the war, but a hard vow to keep. WWI happened more than 100 years ago. WWI veterans have died, leaving no one to speak for them.
“Things are fading into the distance,” Gehrz said.
Memorials for WWI were designed to catch the viewer’s attention, but these days they are easy to miss. The purpose of his presentation was to help people recognize the structure and symbols of the memorials.
Gehrz has visited dozens of memorials in Europe and across Minnesota. Memorials vary from country to country and focus on different themes depending on they were erected.
Some of the earliest memorials were built near the front lines of the war. Soldiers were buried almost immediately after being killed.
The families of American soldiers killed overseas were faced with a difficult choice on whether to disinter their loved one and have the body shipped back home or leave them buried overseas.
Throughout the 1920s, the U.S. government funded trips overseas to allow Americans to visit the graves of their fallen family members. Special houses were built near these cemeteries for visiting Americans. Several of these houses still stand in France today and are used by the cemetery caretaker.
At battlefield cemeteries, individual grave markers were not often possible. A single marker could represent as many as four soldiers, and the graves were rarely spaced in even lines.
In many WWI cemeteries, the most common flower is the poppy. During the war, continuous bombing disturbed the soil around battlefields and promoted the rapid growth of poppies. The poppy quickly became a method of remember the war. The poem “In Flanders Fields” written by Major John McCrae immortalized the poppy’s connection with war. The poem is frequently seen at WWI memorials including the memorial in New Ulm.
Gehrz showed photos of New Ulm’s WWI memorial in the city cemetery. The memorial features a WWI statue commonly called “The Doughboy.” The Doughboy statue was an extremely popular form of memorial. Gehrz said identical statues are located all over the country, as they were mass-produced and designed to represent the typical WWI soldier.
Not long after the war, many artists grew tired of the military-themed memorials. By 1919, many called for new types of memorials that paid tribute to democracy.
In Minneapolis, the Victory Memorial Drive was created as a living memorial. The road is part of the memorial. Each of the trees planted along the route represent a Hennepin County citizen lost in the war.
Minnesota originally built the Memorial Stadium at the University of Minnesota as a WWI memorial. The front gate to the Memorial Stadium was incorporated into the new TCF Bank Stadium.
Gehrz said one of the most moving WWI memorials is located in a German military cemetery in Langemark, Belgium. Allied nations refused to allow German cemeteries in their countries to promote military themes and erect large memorials. As a result, the Langemark cemetery contains a series of flat stones. To access the cemetery, visitors must cross a moat surrounding the site.
This month represents the 100 anniversary of the U.S. entry into the war, and many Americans are trying to honor the soldiers that fought in it. Gehrz said plans are underway to build an official WWI memorial in Washington, D.C. At this time, there is no official WWI memorial, with the exception of a statue, Black Jack Pershing in Pershing Park. Pershing Park will likely be the location of the national memorial, but funding is limited.
Gehrz said questions over interpretation continue to be an issue for new memorials. After the presentation, Gehrz was asked if he encountered any memorials that recognized the treatment of black soldiers fighting in WWI.
Gehrz said he encounter no memorials referencing the sacrifice of black soldiers, but acknowledged it was a serious issue at the time. During the first WWI, the U.S. Army was still segregated. For many black soldiers, it was difficult to fight overseas while at home lynchings were an all too common practice.
The continued maintenance of memorials is another struggle. The war began over 100 years ago, and many of the memorials are reaching the same age. Upkeep is a growing concern. The trees at Victory Memorial Drive in Minneapolis needed to be replaced as they died off.
Gehrz described these memorials as important reminders of the past. No matter how far we move away and how easy it is for Americans to be indifferent to history, the memorials ensure we do not forget.
The WWI speaking series began this month in honor of the 100 anniversary of the U.S. entry into WWI. The Brown County Historical Society has created a new exhibit, “Loyalty and Dissent,” which will open in May. Private VIP tours are scheduled for Thursday, May 4. A tour for Historic Society members is scheduled for Friday, May 5, and the exhibit opens to the public on May 6.