Historian builds online database of World War I memorials

He's found about 2,000 and estimates there may be as many as 10,000

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WASHINGTON — On Nov. 14, 1921, President Warren G. Harding and Army Gen. John Pershing set the cornerstone for Washington's colossal National Victory Memorial, at 6th Street and what is now Constitution Avenue.

World War I had just ended, and this huge edifice was planned, in part, to honor the sacrifice of Americans in "the Great War." There were to be stars representing each of the nation's war dead on the ceiling and an 11,000-seat auditorium inside.

But after the foundation and a long set of stone steps were built, the project stalled. Money dried up. The war faded from memory. And the enterprise was scrapped.

With this year's start of the centennial of World War I (1914-18), Mark Levitch, a Washington art historian, has been scouring the country for memorials to the war that was to end all wars.

He has searched the Internet and taken to the road in hopes of assembling, with the help of the public, a database of the war's forgotten monuments. He calls it the World War I Memorial Inventory Project.

He has found about 2,000 so far, including one mass-produced statue that was sold by a savvy sculptor at least 140 times to small towns across the country.

Some memorials have been damaged, vandalized or stolen. Others have been torn down or are crumbling from neglect. Others remain moving tributes to the men and women who went off to the war.

Levitch estimates that there may be 10,000 World War I memorials in the United States.

He's also found records of monuments that came and went - fabulous but temporary victory arches in New York and in Washington, the latter a block from the White House.

And he has learned of a few, like the giant victory building, that never got off the ground.

"In our country, we give most attention to World War II and the Civil War," he said in a recent interview. "World War I is very much overlooked."

Americans came late to the conflict. And even though the sprawling Meuse-Argonne Offensive in 1918 was probably the largest and bloodiest battle in American history, killing more than 25,000 Americans, scholars say it is barely remembered today.

The Civil War's Battle of Gettysburg, which claimed about 7,000 lives from both sides, and World War II's Battle of the Bulge, which killed about 19,000 Americans, are much more famous.

But at the time, World War I "was remembered . . . as a momentous occasion for the United States," Levitch said. "It represented the ushering in of the American century . . . (and) it made the U.S. a world power."

An estimated 5 million Americans served, and more than 100,000 died, many of them in the trenches and shell holes of France.

The United States didn't join its allies, primarily Britain, France and Russia, in the struggle against Germany and Austria-Hungary until April 1917. But large U.S. forces arrived at a crucial moment and played a major role in the victory.

Levitch, who lives in Washington's DuPont Circle area, is an author and student of World War I who works as a contract writer at the National Gallery of Art.

He said that although the nation's monuments to World War I often go unnoticed, "they're everywhere."