The Clinton War Memorial in DeWitt Clinton Park, courtesy of Jillian Davidson

Flanders House moves up a gear for the War’s Centennial

Posted on on 28 May 2013
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Centenary News' Dr. Jillian Davidson reports on the Memorial Day service held at the De Witt Clinton Park War Memorial, organised by Flanders House and Mr. Kris Dierckx, Representative of the Government of Flanders, Belgium to the U.S.

On a rather busy and noisy corner of 11th Avenue and 52nd Street, in mid-town Manhattan, opposite the recording studio of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and adjacent to a rather popular dog park and expansive baseball field, there stands a neighborhood gem: the De Witt Clinton Park War Memorial.

Umbrellas ready for a rather cold and wet Friday morning, a modest crowd convened. It was an intimate gathering of approximately 50 men, a few in uniform and almost a dozen women. Many already knew each other, several had met earlier this year at another Flanders House sponsored event: the Centennial Planning Conference at the National World War One Museum in Kansas City.

Those assembled naturally formed a semi circle in front of Burt Johnson’s sculpture of a doughboy (a popular term for a World War I American infantryman), huddling together to honor the meaning of Memorial Day and in particular the victims of World War One.

Coordinating the ceremony was Kris Dierckx, the diplomatic representative of the Flanders Government. He warmly welcomed everyone present, and especially the granddaughter of the monument’s sculptor, Amy Schwartz. He was excited to announce that the Government of Flanders had been working officially to adopt this statue and its surrounding landscape for the next six/seven years.

Dierckx further explained the extent of his government’s overall commitment: “It is our explicit ambition to establish a humanitarian and internationally oriented project, which we wish to associate with the message of peace.” The Government of Flanders seeks to raise awareness and understanding of World War One and its consequences.

New York City’s Parks Commissioner, William Castro then addressed the crowd. In thanking the Flanders Government for organizing this event, he was particularly grateful for their efforts to adopt the monument and their help in making the surrounding landscape so beautiful. This monument, he explained was one of over 100 monuments in New York City’s parks, which are dedicated to the soldiers of World War One.

Many of these triangles and monuments were set up during the 1930s, during the Great Depression when neighborhoods came together. “It really brought communities together to reflect and remember, and not to forget. Entire neighborhoods felt this devastation as their young sons were bound for Europe, to Belgium and Flanders Fields and many were never to come home.”

In thinking about future generations and what this monument will mean, Castro recalled an especially fond memory from his own childhood, how as a boy growing up, he had watched the CBS TV series “World War One” (which aired for 26 weeks starting in September 1964 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the war): “It was a tremendous series… I remember sitting on the couch with my father every week and he would impress upon me man’s inhumanity to man, don’t ever let this happen again.”

As a sign of how cohesive this group of gatherers was, Kris Dierckx invited whoever wanted to say something, to do so. One US veteran responded by recalling that since the 27th division of infantrymen, who saw active duty in Flanders, was made up primarily of New Yorkers, it was very appropriate to have this ceremony in New York City. In the spirit of the occasion, this comment was met with generous applause.

There followed a proclamation from the office of Michael Bloomberg, the Mayor of the City of New York, on the importance of Memorial Day as a reminder of the values and ideals American servicemen hoped to defend and an exciting declaration that May 24th, 2013 is to be known in New York as Flanders House Memorial Day. A very appreciative Kris Dierckx, in turn, asked that the representative convey back to the Mayor his thanks for this wonderful gesture.

After the laying of the wreath in front of the Doughboy, to the accompaniment of the playing of The Last Post, came the climax of the service: the reading of John McCrae’s famous poem “In Flanders Fields”. This poem inspired the sculptor, Burt Johnson, and its thirds verse is carved upon the pedestal of his monument. 

Flanders House had already handed out red and black poppies for everyone to wear as well as card copies of McCrae’s handwritten poem. Poppies really were the main symbol of the memorial service. Not only does the monument’s doughboy hold a poppy in his right hand, but also, as Kris Dierckx mentioned, the poppy represents a flower that is abundantly present in Flanders Field and which was the first vegetation to grow on the graves of those who fell on the battlefields. Its color also, of course, serves as a reminder of the bloodshed of the war years.

Before reading it, Kathryn T. Cross, a gold-star mother (someone who has lost a son/daughter in service) explained why the poem held a special sentiment for her and her family: “I remember dearly the stories from my grandmother of her uncles who were missing in action and lost in Flanders Fields. We would journey there every year to place flowers amongst the poppies in memory of our family members there in Belgium.”

After reciting the poem, as she returned to the crowd, she along with several others, wiped away tears, deeply affected by the whole ceremony.

© Centenary Digital Ltd & Author