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New York and “The War to End All Wars”: Finding Traces of World War I in all Five Boroughs

Douglas Fairbanks hoists Charlie Chaplin onto his shoulders at a World War I Liberty Bonds rally on Wall Street

In the midst of the frenzy surrounding this week’s midterm elections, America is giving short shrift to an important anniversary which, in another year, might be the top of everyone’s minds: the centennial of Armistice Day, or what we in America now call Veterans Day.

One hundred years ago this Sunday, November 11— at the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh month — the hastily drawn armistice signed in Paris went into effect, halting fighting between the Allies and Germany. The war had been raging for over four years and had claimed the lives of upward of 15 million combatants.

Though New York City honors its history, reminders of the “Great War” have faded into the background. Still, there are plenty of monuments, memorials, and historic sites in all five boroughs if you know where to look. This is just a small sample.

HMS Lusitania (courtesy of the New York Public Library)

From the beginning of the conflict, New York City felt very tied to the war. On May 1, 1915, the HMS Lusitania had departed from Pier 54 in Chelsea on her return voyage to Liverpool. The ship was torpedoed and sank on May 7, killing close to 1,200 passengers and crew. Today, Pier 54 (at Horatio Street) is a ruin, though it is occasionally used for special events. If you visit, look at the entrance arch: both the words “Cunard” and “White Star” — the two passenger ship lines which used the pier — are faintly visible.

Front page of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 31, 1916

On the night of July 30, 1916, an explosion at a munitions depot on Black Tom Island in New Jersey rocked New York City. German saboteurs were targeting ammunition earmarked to be shipped to the Allies in Europe. When the depot exploded, it was the equivalent of a 5.5 earthquake , felt as far away as Maryland. The explosion damaged the arm of the Statue of Liberty, forever closing her torch to visitation.

In October 1917, six months after the US had entered the war, a captured German U-Boat was hauled to Central Park and put on display in the middle of Sheep Meadow as part of a public relations campaign to sell government war bonds. (Had the Liberty Bond committee had its way, the park’s North Meadow would have been dug up to display “barbed wire entanglements, dugouts, communication trenches…wrecked airplanes, shell holes and one camouflaged big gun.”)

Pier A, Battery Park (courtesy of the Library of Congress)

After the war, a number of memorials appeared across the city. The first was the clock appended to Pier A in Battery Park. The pier — today home to numerous bars and restaurants — was opened in 1886 as a headquarters for the harbor police. The clock was unveiled on January 25, 1919, by New York City’s mayor, John Hylan, and was dedicated to all 116,000 American servicemen who died during the war.

When America entered the war, Hylan’s predecessor, John Purroy Mitchel — one of the youngest mayors in the city’s history — signed up for the Air Service. During a training exercise in Louisiana in 1918, Mitchel fell to his death. He is the only mayor honored with a statue in Central Park, a gold bust at the entrance at Fifth Avenue and 90th Street that was dedicated in 1928.

New York didn’t just honor its own: the most famous American war hero was probably Sgt. Alvin York, the conscientious objector from rural Tennessee who became the hero of the Battle of the Argonne Forest. York killed twenty German soldiers and captured over 130 more almost entirely by himself. In April 1928 — the same year Mayor Mitchel’s bust was dedicated in Central Park — Avenue A north of 59th Street was renamed York Avenue in his honor and ultimately the surrounding neighborhood came to be known as Yorkville.

These were grand gestures; however, most memorials in the city were much more local, remembering servicemen from a particular church, school, or neighborhood.

For example, in the heart of Chinatown, a plaque on the front of Mott Street’s Church of the Transfiguration commemorates the parishioners who died in the war. All the names are Italian except for three Irish surnames, making it a snapshot of how that area has changed over time. Similarly, there’s a flagpole which stands just to the southeast of the famous arch in Washington Square. Inscribed on the base are the names of Greenwich Village’s war dead. Many of the surnames are Italian, a reminder of the ethnic makeup of much of the area around the square at the time.

photo by Team Moss Men on Wikimedia Commons

As an example of how local the memorials could be, just a half mile away from Washington Square there’s another World War I commemoration: a handsome doughboy sculpted by Philip Martiny erected in Abingdon Square “by popular subscription in honor of the brave men who went forth from this neighborhood” to fight.

Some monuments were hyper-local: the small memorial at the corner of Victory Boulevard and Cannon Avenue in Staten Island’s Travis neighborhood commemorates the nine Travis servicemen who died overseas.

photo by Beyond My Ken on Wikimedia Commons

Like Martiny’s statue, many memorials are placed in public parks around the five boroughs. In Mitchel Square in Upper Manhattan — named in honor of Mayor Mitchel — Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s 1922 Washington Heights-Inwood War Memorial shows two doughboys helping a struggling comrade.

Among the memorials in the Bronx is Jerome Connor’s Bronx Victory Memorial in Pelham Bay Park, which was dedicated in 1925 to the 947 soldiers from that borough who gave their lives in the war; in Astoria Park in Queens there’s a huge monument in honor of Long Island’s war dead.

photo by Jeffrey O. Gustafson on Wikimedia Commons

But perhaps the city’s most affecting World War I memorial is in Prospect Park where Augustus Lukeman’s bronze sculpture of the Angel of Death guides a fallen doughboy to the afterlife. Behind the statue stands a granite exedra that measures 18 feet high by 35 feet long; on the walls are bronze tablets inscribed with the 2,800 names of Brooklynites— men and women — who died in the war.

They called it “the war to end all wars,” but less than a decade after some of these memorials were dedicated, Europe was slipping back toward a conflict that would claim the lives of upward of 50 million people — thousands of them New Yorkers.