Army, VA Chiefs Attend WWI Memorial Groundbreaking

General Mark A. Milley, U.S. Army Chief of Staff, speaks at the ceremonial groundbreaking for the National World War I Memorial at Pershing Park in Washington, D.C. Nov. 9, 2017. (DoD photo by EJ Hersom)
General Mark A. Milley, U.S. Army Chief of Staff, speaks at the ceremonial groundbreaking for the National World War I Memorial at Pershing Park in Washington, D.C. Nov. 9, 2017. (DoD photo by EJ Hersom)

In a shabby, partly abandoned little park about a block from the White House, dignitaries gathered Thursday to make amends for the "national tragedy" that left World War I off the roster of America's conflicts that have memorials in Washington, D.C.

Once the homeless were cleared from the area, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley; Veterans Affairs Secretary Dr. David Shulkin; and Sandra Sinclair Pershing, the granddaughter-in-law of World War I commander Gen. John J. "Black Jack" Pershing, joined others in taking gold-colored shovels to turn over soil brought from a century-old battlefield in France.

"It's a national tragedy that the millions of vets of the 'Great War' who were the parents of the greatest generation have not been memorialized in our capital," said Terry Hamby, a Vietnam veteran and commissioner of the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission.

"Today, this groundbreaking service starts a process of erecting a memorial," Hamby said, just days before the nation again marks Veterans Day, which began as "Armistice Day" after World War I.

Hamby spoke in front of posters and placards put up by the commission to tell some of the story of the 4.4 million Americans who answered the call to arms for the "war to end all wars."

There was a quote from an Australian trooper to his new American trench pal: "You'll do me, Yank, but you chaps are a bit rough."

That translates as admiration in Australian for the "doughboys" of the 131st and 132nd regiments of the 33rd Division of the Illinois National Guard, who had just gone over the top in a frontal assault that drove back the Germans in the French summer of 1917.

'Dash, Gallantry and Efficiency'

Lt. Gen. John Monash, the Australian commander, was also admiring of the aggressiveness of the untested Yanks, and especially of their willingness to disobey orders to get into the fight.

Monash wrote, "The dash, gallantry and efficiency of these American troops left nothing to be desired."

Gen. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces who would later have the title "General of the Armies," was not so admiring. Actually, he was furious, according to historians. He had strict orders against U.S. units taking direction from the allies.

Pershing was adamantly against the British and French encroaching upon his command and taking advantage of the new American troops by using them for frontal assaults that they had mostly abandoned for their own forces. That was for Pershing to do.

The British and French tried to advise Pershing against charging into "No Man's Land" to face machine guns without adequate artillery support and that new battlefield invention called the tank. The mantra was that "artillery conquers, infantry occupies."

Sometimes Pershing would listen, sometimes he wouldn't. War colleges still debate his generalship.

Pershing would later write, "It was thought reasonable to count on the vigor and aggressive spirit of our troops to make up in a measure for their inexperience."

A Major Factor

There is less debate that the new American troops were a major factor in stopping the last German offensive and breaking the trench warfare stalemate.

The Germans knew they had to act before the Americans arrived in force. Rudolf Bing, a staff officer to Gen. Erich Ludendorff, quartermaster general of the German General Staff, wrote that the German offensive of 1918 would run up against allied tanks, and "behind them there will be an American army which may number a million."

Before the armistice on "eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" of 1918, more than 116,000 U.S. troops would be killed in combat. Two hundred thousand were wounded; another 56,000 would die in the Spanish flu pandemic.

In the Meuse-Argonne offensive alone, still the largest and bloodiest battle in U.S. military history, more than 1.2 million American troops took part, with more than 26,200 killed.

The soil used in Thursday's groundbreaking ceremony was from Meuse-Argonne.

"As Americans, we must remember the sacrifices and how their service changed the world forever," Hamby said. "For 100 years, the 116,516 veterans who gave their lives -- that's more than Vietnam and Korea together -- and the countless others who suffered physical and emotional injuries, and others who answered the call of our nation, have been forgotten by America."

Not Forgotten

But not totally forgotten, said District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser. On the National Mall near the World War II Memorial just off Independence Avenue stands a marble monument to the more than 500 from the District who died in World War I.

The new World War I memorial, expected to be completed in 2020, will be a "vital and long-awaited addition" to the District's monument, Bowser said.

In his remarks, Milley echoed his own constant "readiness" theme for the Army in stating that World War I should have taught the lesson that America must always be prepared for war to ensure peace.

In 1916, Pershing had an Army of about 200,000 that was busy chasing Pancho Villa in Mexico. In 1917, he was leading millions of raw troops against battle-tested armies in Europe, Milley said.

Of World War I, Milley said, "It was a horrible war" in which an estimated 38 million died, and it was blundered into by "the kings and the queens and the czars and the kaisers and the presidents of Europe."

"It was a war that ripped apart five empires," he said, and "set the conditions for the most horrific war in human history by ushering in World War II with the failed and flawed Treaty of Versailles. The struggles that we see today can be directly attributed to the first world war."

There are many lessons in operations, tactics and strategy from World War I, and there are "lessons of politics and government and economics," Milley said, "but if there's one lesson most of all to learn, it's the lesson to vow never to let it happen again."

"And the way to prevent war is to maintain preparedness for war," he said. "If there's one lesson to learn as a nation, it's to be prepared."

"If you want to sustain the peace, then have large, ready, credible military forces so that you can do whatever the nation asks in order to make sure this experiment in liberty is passed on to the next generation and the generation after that," Milley said.

He spoke in front of a statue of Pershing that is the centerpiece of what is now called "Pershing Park," which has turned into a triangular eyesore across the street from the historic Willard Hotel where Pennsylvania Avenue makes the turn to pass in front of the White House.

One of the World's Longest Bas Reliefs

Graffiti-marked cracked concrete is all that's left of what had once been a small ice-skating rink in winter and a reflecting pool in summer, but "this is really the perfect place for the location of the World War I memorial, right here in front of the Willard Hotel" where Abraham Lincoln stayed before his inauguration, said Bob Vogel, director of the National Capital Region (NCR) of the National Park Service.

Vogel also noted that Pershing led a parade the American Expeditionary Forces past the site along Pennsylvania Avenue 10 months after peace was declared.

To fill the space of the old skating rink, the Centennial Commission has chosen 27-year-old architect Joe Weishaar of Chicago, and collaborating sculptor Sabin Howard of New York City.

They have designed a 65-foot-long, 11-foot-tall bas relief depicting scenes from the war and the homecoming. Weishaar said it will be one of the world's largest bas reliefs. The project is expected to cost $30 million to $35 million, all raised from private donations.

"It's a series of tableaus that overlap and fade into each other," Weishaar said. "We want people to come face-to-face with the humanity we find in those who served in this war."

The humanity of those who served in World War I is uppermost for Denise Rohan, national commander of the American Legion.

In her remarks at the groundbreaking, Rohan said of the those veterans, "They are gone now, but their legacy endures."

The last surviving U.S. veteran of World War I, Cpl. Frank Buckles, died in 2011 at age 110.

"It was not the war to end all wars but, oh, how we wish it was," Rohan said. "How we wish that those 116,516 fallen American heroes were the last to die in war. How we wish that none of the Americans who went 'Over There' would have to return to Europe and the Pacific a generation later to fight another great war.

"And how we wish that all political leaders from around the world would conduct themselves with the honor and devotion of our brave military heroes, thus making future wars unnecessary," she said. "The legacy left by our doughboys and, yes, the women who also served, is freedom -- freedom from tyranny and fear."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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