Why is World War I Little Appreciated?

By Scott Spangler on October 7th, 2019

WW1-1To the aviation minded, interest in World War I stops at the aerodrome because that’s where aeronautics’ voice changed as its technology matured. But interest in the conflict in which it fought—the War to End All Wars—never captured the interest of most Americans, whose attention and adulation focused on the Great War’s offspring, World War II. A visit to The National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City was an eye-opener that posed the headline’s question and others that wonder why?

If someone asked me to name all of the World War I memorials I knew of, it would be the Liberty Memorial and the mass-produced Spirit of the American Doughboy statue in Lord’s Park in Elgin, Illinois, not far from my boyhood home. I learned about the Liberty Memorial when I moved to Kansas City in 1989, but I never visited because the two halls that flanked the memorial tower were rarely open, and the whole thing closed in 1994.

It wasn’t until I visited it earlier this year that I learned that two weeks after the war ended on 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the civic leaders discussed the need for a lasting memorial to the men and women who served and died in the war. The city raised $2.5 million in 10 days in 1919. More than 100,000 people, including the five main allied commanders, attended the site dedication in 1921.

WW1-27After three years of construction, President Calvin Coolidge delivered the dedication speech to a crowd of more than 150,000. On Veteran’s Day 1961, former presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower delivered rededication addresses to a crown of 60,000. The citizens voted to restore the memorial and expand the museum in 1998. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in October 2006. On the 2014 centennial of the war’s commencement, Congress finally recognized the Liberty Memorial as the national World War I memorial, renaming it.

America’s lack of appreciation for World War I is probably rooted in its short tenure of combat. The war started in 1914 but America didn’t get involved until April 1917, when unrestricted submarine warfare and the publication of Zimmerman’s telegram to Mexico promising the return of Texas and other states if it would attack America on behalf of the Axis.

Another factor is the scope of America’s participation. Slightly more than 4.7 million men and women served in the armed forces during the war. Of the force, only 2.8 million served overseas; 53,402 of them were killed in action. More than 63,000 died from diseases, mostly in the influenza pandemic, which claimed 50 million people worldwide, 675,000 of them in the United States. Unlike World War II, in which more than 16 million Americans (11 percent of the US population) served during the four-year conflict, during World War I more families were affected by the flu than the war.

WW1-31Related to the number of affected families is generational depreciation, where interest wanes with the arrival of every new generation—unless the surviving hardware and history satisfies a niche curiosity. Aviation leads this list. And World War II is first on it because of its expansive generational proximity and because its hardware is still airborne. In the Great War, America didn’t really have substantial aerial forces let alone combat aircraft. Those that served fly fixed from museum ceilings. And the same is true for most aircraft that served the conflicts that followed World War II.

A lack of appreciation for the sacrifices of those who served in World War I is superseded only by the universal disregard for the socioeconomic and geopolitical causes of it and the resulting consequences that plague the world today. Another way to view all military memorials is, perhaps, as monuments to human hubris and disability to learn from the past. – Scott Spangler, Editor

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5 Responses to “Why is World War I Little Appreciated?”

  1. Les Kopel Says:

    The Doughboy statue at Elgin, IL, is John Paulding’s “Over the Top”, not E. M. Viquesney’s “Spirit of the American Doughboy”.

  2. Les Kopel Says:

    The Elgin, IL, Doughboy statue mentioned in your article is in Davidson Memorial Park, not Lords Park, and it’s John Paulding’s “Over the Top”, not E. M. Viquesney’s “Spirit of the American Doughboy”. Both statues look similar when viewed from the front, but can be easily distinguished when viewed from the side. The Viquesney statue walks with both feet touching the base; the Paulding statue at Elgin runs with one foot off the base. The Viquesney statue holds a hand grenade; the Paulding statue at Elgin has a balled fist. The Viquesney statue has two tree stumps on the base; the Paulding statue at Elgin has one stump-like brace holding up the leg and foot free of the base.

  3. Scott Spangler Says:

    Thanks for the correction! It’s been a decade or two since I’ve seen it, so my memory of it is fuzzed with the passage of time.

  4. Glen Towler Says:

    In New Zealand ANZAC day the 25th of April gets bigger every year. Where we remember the dead from all wars but especially ANZAC day which happened during WW1. We did go through many years of no interest at all. But now millions of people attend services all over the country.

  5. Why is World War I Little Appreciated? – Aerospace News Crunched Says:

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