World War I has receded in the popular imagination to a minor footnote to the 20th century, as if it were just the warmup to WWII. But the Great War, as it was once known, shaped the entire century.
Here’s a sign of how consequential it was: One assassin’s bullet in Sarajevo would result in memorials in towns and cities across Minnesota, half a world away.
There’s a doughboy in front of the courthouse in Ada, memorializing the fighting sons from Norman County. In Verndale, a hamlet on Hwy. 10 between Wadena and Staples, the downtown has a park by the railroad tracks. On the edge of the park stands a humble white monument with two ornate glass globes on neoclassical poles. The names of the “boys” from Wadena County are written in raised letters on a metal plate, still legible.
One hundred years ago today, the families of the fallen soldiers stood in front of those markers and wept. Over the decades, however, we’ve lost the sense of the impact of WWI, which saw our country whipsaw from isolationism to involvement.
About 118,500 Minnesotans served in WWI, when the state had a population of around 2 million, according to the 1910 census. Most made it back, but 3,607 young men died over there. The returning soldiers were hailed not just as honored vets, but heroes who had helped stop a mechanized slaughter to bring about a new, enlightened age.
It was deemed necessary to celebrate and salute them. But how?
In Minneapolis, a statue wasn’t enough. The war to end all wars required a monument woven into the city itself. That turned out to be Victory Memorial Drive. This parkway, just shy of 4 miles long, is a testament to the city’s response to the war; it’s impossible to imagine so much real estate set aside today for such a grand memorial.
Planted with thousands of elms and dotted with monuments and memorials, the drive was intended to be a long, solemn corridor with tree branches intertwined in a cathedral roof. Dutch elm disease decimated many of the trees, so, despite a $6.7 million overhaul in 2011, the drive looks spare — until you walk its length and see names inscribed in stone slabs set in the ground, symbolic headstones for Minnesotans long gone.
There’s no statue. Instead, there’s a flagpole plaza, with the names of Hennepin County’s 568 war dead. There’s also a stripe on the pavement. The flagpole casts a shadow on that stripe at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, when the war ended. The shadow lies along the mark for a moment, a silent memorial of light and dark. And then it moves on. The world always turns, but for a day we remember those for whom it stopped.