WWI Memorial: Telling the Story

WWI Memorial: Telling the Story

Jan. 10 - Mar. 31, 2022 | Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, Fifth Floor

Have you ever visited the Washington, D.C. World War I Memorial on the National Mall? DC Public Library has a new exhibit dedicated to the District's World War I Memorial honoring the DC residents that served in the War.

In April 1917, when the United States declared war on Germany, the population of the District was 361,000 — less than half of what it is today. It was a city where people lived near their work, shopped in neighborhood stores, and attended nearby schools. World War I was a short, fierce war that exposed American troops to machine-gun fire and chemical warfare, as well as the rapid spread of a deadly influenza. In the 17 months of war, 26,000 Washingtonians served and more than 500 of them died. District residents felt the impact of the War acutely, and shortly after its end, they began planning a memorial.

You can view the exhibit on the 5th floor of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library through March. This exhibition is made possible in part by the DC Public Library Foundation.

The US Enters the War | The War and D.C. The War is Over | Realizing the Memorial

The United States Enters The War

Woodrow Wilson campaigned for a second term as President on staying out of the war in Europe. He won the election and was inaugurated during the first week of March 1917.

Woodrow Wilson's Inauguration
Willard R. Ross Postcard Collection, People's Archive at DC Public Library

Just one week later, President Wilson ordered twelve U.S. Navy gunners and their commanding officer to escort the merchant ship Aztec from New York City to Le Harve, France. On April 1, 1917, a German submarine sank the Aztec as it neared the coast of France, killing 22 members of the Aztec’s merchant crew and Navy gunner John Eopolucci (the first man on the left, kneeling), a Washingtonian. The sinking of the Aztec led Wilson to go to Congress for a declaration of war against Germany. John Eopolucci became the first servicemen to die in the war with Germany.

Attack on the Aztec
The Evening World, April 4, 1917 p.9

President Woodrow Wilson went before Congress to request a declaration of war against Germany on April 2, 1917. Wilson's reasons for the declaration included Germany’s continued torpedo attacks on ships. On April 4, 1917, the U.S. Senate voted to support a declaration of war on Germany. The House voted to support the declaration two days later.

US Declares War
The Evening Star Newspaper, April 6, 1917

Unlike the Civil War, President Wilson's Selective Service Act of 1917 meant those who were drafted could neither purchase an exemption nor hire a substitute to take their places. On July 20, 1917, Secretary of War, Newton D. Baker drew the first number, 258. The way the draft was designed, hundreds of men across the country had the number 258. It took 24 hours for the first drawing to be completed.

Person Signs up for Draft
National Archives - Identified 533713

The War and the District of Columbia

Almost 2,000 men from D.C. were among the first names drawn for the draft.
DC residents drafted
The Evening Star, July 20, 1917

This photo shows the staff of the District Pumping Station at 2nd and O Sts, S.E. Vincent Costello, a meter inspector, is seated in the front row, second from the left. Costello was killed in action in September 1918. He was the first of thirteen District employees who died in service. There is a memorial to these thirteen men, dedicated in 1920, that is now located on the first floor of D.C. Government's Wilson building.
C0stello Family Photo
Courtesy of the Costello Family

As the Federal Government geared up for war, thousands of people from across the country arrived in D.C. to support the war effort. This photo was taken on the 1600 block of Pennsylvania Ave, N.W., looking west towards New York Ave.
DC sees influx of people
Harris & Ewing, photographer. ARMY, U.S. SOLDIERS GOING THROUGH CITY IN TRUCKS AND AUTOS. United States Washington D.C. District of Columbia Washington D.C, 1918. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2016868996/.

The District's National Guard - Separate Battalion, under the command of James Edward Walker, was stationed on Hains Point to guard the train tracks and bridges into the city from potential sabotage or invasion by German or Italian forces. The bridge in the background is the railroad bridge connecting D.C. to Virginia.
National Guard on Hains Point
Harris & Ewing, photographer. ARMY, U.S. NEGRO TROOPS. , 1917. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2016868672/.

Women first joined the Marines in 1918 and were called Marinettes. Applying for the corps was rigorous: the applicants had to not only have exceptional secretarial skills, they also had to pass a physical exam and be of the highest moral character. The women were assigned to the Marine Headquarters, located near the White House, mostly to perform office duties.
Harris & Ewing, photographer. MARINETTES OF U.S. MARINE CORPS. United States Washington D.C. District of Columbia Washington D.C, 1918. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2016869587/.

Across the city, preparations were made for war. Torpedos, deck guns, and heavy artillery were produced at the Navy Yard in southeast Washington.
Navy Yard Munitions
Harris & Ewing, photographer. NAVY YARD, U.S., WASHINGTON. TORPEDO SHOP. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/item/2016868687.

Located on the roof of an office building on the 1400 block of New York Ave, N.W., the siren sounded every day at noon to remind Washingtonians to pray for victory.

Harris & Ewing, photographer. The Angelus siren, Washington, D.C. , None. [Between 1917 and 1919] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2016854366/.

In early March 1918, the USS Cyclops was heading from Barbados for the port of Baltimore when the ship disappeared with 306 people on board, including five servicemen from the District. The wreck has never been found and, because of the location where it is assumed to have gone down, is considered the first in the long line of ships to have disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle.
Cyclops Down
The Washington Herald, April 15, 1918

Once war was declared, parades, concerts, and signage constantly reminded Washingtonians of the need for financial support through the Liberty Loan drive. Many signs, like this one on the Post Office building, appeared across the city. The Post Office building is located at 12th & Pennsylvania Ave, N.W. and is now a luxury hotel.
Postal Building
Harris & Ewing, photographer. POST OFFICE DEPARTMENT BUILDING, 12TH AND PENNSYLVANIA AVE., WITH LIBERTY LOAN BANNER. United States Washington D.C. District of Columbia Washington D.C, 1917. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2016868523/.

The War is Over

Armistice signed
The Evening Star, November 11, 1918

On September 17, 1919, the city celebrated the triumphant return of General Pershing with the First Division. In this photo Pershing can be seen in the 1400 block of Pennsylvania Ave., N.W. in front of the Willard Hotel.
Victory Parade
Historic Image Collection, People's Archive at DC Public Library

In this photo Pershing can be seen passing the old Riggs Bank building in the 1500 block of Pennsylvania Ave. N.W.
General Pershing
Historic Image Collection, People's Archive at DC Public Library

A Victory Arch was constructed for the parade at the corner of 15th St and Pennsylvania Ave, N.W. While the end of the war brought jubilant celebrations, at the same time, the city was reeling. The War had a terrible cost and the deaths impacted everyone across the city.
Victory Arch
Historic Image Collection, People's Archive at DC Public Library

Planning a Memorial

In May 1921, a memorial service was held on the grounds of the Washington Monument for Washingtonians Hiram F. Cash and Vincent B. Costello. The men's remains were returned from France for internment in Arlington Cemetery. The Cash and Costello reinterment at Arlington was one of hundreds that took place in D.C. between 1921 and 1922.
Funeral on the national mall
Harris & Ewing, photographer. Soldier funeral over bodies of Vincent B. Costello & Hiram E. Cash at Sylvan Theater Washington, D.C. United States Washington D.C. District of Columbia Washington D.C, 1921. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2016886120/.

Communities across the city dedicated memorials to their members - schools, churches, and office buildings had plaques, statues, and stained glass windows dedicated to the people they'd lost. This memorial came from Calvary Baptist Church, located on the southeast corner of 8th and H Sts, NW. The church has generously donated this memorial to the People's Archive.
WW1 Memorial
People's Archive at DC Public Library

Unlike the other jurisdictions across the country that wanted a War Memorial, the District had to first plead its case to Congress. Congress first agreed to fund a Memorial Commission to consider building a memorial in the city. With twelve Congressionally appointed members, the commission then spent several years securing a location and design. The design then had to be approved by the Commission of Fine Arts. In 1926, after 12 years, the District had a design and a location. All that was left to do was raise the $200,000 needed for the construction of the memorial. This photo shows an architectural model of the memorial, displayed in a window of the downtown department store Woodward & Lothrop.
WW1 Memorial Model
Photo courtesy of DC History Center

The memorial was designed to be an intimate space where family members could gather, listen to music, and remember their loved ones. The floor size of the memorial is based on measurements provided by John Phillip Sousa to ensure a Marine Corps band could comfortably perform in the pavilion. The names of those who died - listed alphabetically without regard to race, sex or rank - were intentionally located in a place where they could be touched. Frank Noyes, Editor of the Evening Star Newspaper, used his paper to promote the memorial.
WWI Memorial Ad
The Evening Star, May 3, 1927

Fundraising took several years, beginning in April 1926 and ending in June, 1931. Across the city, community groups, churches, businesses, government employees - even school children - helped to raise funds. This photo was taken in May 1927 and ran in the Evening Star to raise awareness of the District's public schools fundraising event.

The Evening Star, May 4, 1927

Ground was broken the spring of 1931. On Armistice Day, November 11, 1931, a crowd attended the dedication of the Memorial, including President and Mrs. Hoover, General Pershing, Mrs. Taft and Mrs. Wilson. John Phillip Sousa conducted the Marine Corps Band. The program was broadcast live on national radio.
Dedication Day
Photo courtesy of Monica Miller
Dedication Day Headline
The Evening Star, November 11, 1931

Years of research have provided the Library with 109 images of the 499 Washingtonians who made the supreme sacrifice during World War I and their names are listed on the DC War Memorial.
PHotos of soldiers lost in WW1