Right here in Salem today, people can explore underground hiding areas that French and German soldiers constructed near Verdun, France, during World War I.
The virtual reality tour is part of the Salem Museum’s exhibit that ties in with Dr. Lynn Rainville’s Nov. 19 talk on the crucial roles Virginians played in the Great War. After Rainville, who is the dean of Sweet Briar College and an anthropologist, studied American cemeteries in France from World War I and II, she began looking for World War I and II memorials in Virginia. She located more than 350. And she found them in surprising places: from plaques to statues to memorial gymnasiums, she explained. “One of the most unusual was underground in Luray Caverns,” she said. In Winchester, a bronze medallion in front of trees carries the names of the dead. “A lot of Virginia’s moving efforts were to remind individuals of a catastrophic world war,” she continued.
More than 70,000 men were drafted in Virginia, Rainville said, from May 1917 until the Armistice was signed.” In Salem, many are familiar with the German 77 mm fi eld gun on Boulevard with a plaque with names of World War I dead, which is one of the state’s “car magnets.” Th e placement of similar guns and memorials on streets seems to attract accidents, Rainville said during her illustrated talk. At Arganne Circle in Roanoke, members of the Daughters of the American Revolution erected a memorial on a large rock. Over the years, the sculpted likeness of a WWI doughboy has eroded, Rainville said, and a plaque now covers the eroded face.
Others are in surprising locations, such as the football field behind Nelson County High School north of Lynchburg, with a memorial tablet honoring those who didn’t return from World War I. One memorial in Newport News was supposed to be a temporary arch, a smaller “Victory Arch” from France.
Originally traffic went through the American arch. In 1952 it was replaced with a replica. In Hopewell, memorial columns were created from mill stones from a local factory, she said. More recently, names from more recent wars have been added. Several of the Southern memorials Rainville studied had ties to famous sculptors, such as a winged statue of Icarius who was fell from the sky. It’s a tribute to James Rogers McConnell, a volunteer ambulance driver who became a pilot and was shot out of the air. The sculptor was Gutzon Borglum.
His Icarius was “a life-size nude, which was an exciting choice for a 1919 memorial,” Rainville said. “It was meant to be part of a garden and is 10 feet away from the Alderman Library. Easily 10,000 people walk past it every day” she said, without knowing its history. Another of her illustrations was a colorful Tiff any stained glass window in the Abingdon County Courthouse. One of Virginia’s most important roles during WWI was selling wheat and horses and mules to the war eff ort. Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Corp. was founded in 1919, and the Virginia port was the second largest and busiest port in the war, second only to New York, according to Rainville. Hundreds of doctors trained in Virginia during that war, including Stuart Maguire – for whom the eastern Virginia Veterans Affairs Medical Center is named. Maguire was the son of the doctor who operated on Stonewall Jackson during the Civil War. Women played a role during WWI in the Women’s Land Army, Rainville explained. “They learned how to farm to replace soldiers serving.” One of those was Meta Glass, an officer of the YWCA, and early president of Sweet Briar College.
Children also played a part in the war effort on posters and in parades, as “Victory Boys” dressed in uniforms, and girls dressed as nurses. And in Roanoke County, “every single child bought at least one war Savings Stamp, Rainville said. The World War I exhibit at the Salem Museum will remain open through February 2019.