Alexandria and the World War I Centennial

The City of Alexandria is joining countless others around the world in commemorating the 100th anniversary of World War I. The war began in Europe in 1914, and the US entered the war in April of 1917.

Page updated on Nov 13, 2017 at 10:48 AM

World War I Logo

The goal of the centennial commemoration is to raise awareness of and give meaning to the events of World War I. Emphasis will be given to:

  • Honoring the heroism and sacrifice of those who served.
  • Educating about the causes, courses, and consequences of the war.
  • Commemorating through public programs. 

For more information about Virginia during World War I, visit the website of the Virginia World War One Centennial.  

For a short and powerful video about World War I, narrated by actor Gary Sinise, visit the website of the United States World War One Centennial Commission. Select "World War I Overview Video."

Alexandria during World War I

For a small city in the shadow of the Nation's capital, Alexandria was fully involved in World War I. Over 4,000 residents participated directly in uniform, while hundreds  more worked in war industries including aircraft construction, shipbuilding, and other war-related production. Effects of the war can still be seen in the City today.

The First World War . . . often called “The Great War” by contemporaries and survivors . . . changed the world in many ways.  Never before had mankind witnessed the sort of mass destruction and loss of life that marked this conflict, made even greater through the industrial, chemical, and military technology of the time.  While the United States attempted to maintain a neutral stance, many American citizens clearly viewed Germany as the aggressor in this war, and sought to ease the suffering of French and Belgian civilians from the war’s earliest days.

By 1917, it had become increasingly difficult for the U. S. government to remain neutral.  The slaughter on the Western Front continued with no end in sight.  The sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania in 1915 by a German submarine had outraged many Americans, and after a brief pause, the German Navy was set to resume unrestricted submarine warfare.  This move, coupled with revelation of a secret deal between Germany and Mexico, whereby the latter would attack the United States from the south, are believed to be the main reasons that President Woodrow Wilson finally asked Congress to declare war on Germany in April, 1917.

Alexandrians were already heavily engaged in the First World War in many ways, from sending contributions for French and Belgian relief, to active service in the military and working in war industries.  Many churches and other civic organizations raised money for relief efforts and worked with the local chapter of the American Red Cross to send parcels of medical supplies.  Thousands of local men and women served in all branches of the military, and the city’s Potomac River shoreline buzzed with activity.  Shipyards at either end of the waterfront produced wooden submarine chasers for the U. S. Navy as well as large steel cargo vessels for the merchant marine.  Local companies built experimental seaplanes, attempting to secure a Navy contract.  Embracing the latest in weapons technology, the Navy also began construction of a new torpedo factory.

WWI Camp McClellan  WWI Alexandria Airplane Factory Workers  WW1 Sub chaser, made in Alexandria

Images: Soldiers at Fort McClellan, where many Alexandria soldiers trained (National Archives); Women working at an airplane factory in Alexandria (Library of Congress); SC 201 sub chaser, made in Alexandria (National World War I Museum)

Exploring World War I in Alexandria

  • Visit The Lyceum: Alexandria’s History Museum. On exhibit: “Alexandrians Fight The Great War” shares the sights, sounds, and stories of local people who lived through this important period in American history.
  • Visit the Torpedo Factory Art Center. Plans were underway for this torpedo factory to serve WWI, but construction began too late for any of its munitions to be used in the war. It is now home to the nation’s largest collection of working-artists’ open studios under one roof. 
  • Tour Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, originally saved and preserved by American Legion Post #24 to honor those who served in WWI.  Thanks to the efforts of the American Legion and the City of Alexandria, guests can still tour the 18th tavern and experience life in early Alexandria. An exhibit highlighting the efforts of the American Legion then and now and the contributions veterans make to Alexandria today opens Memorial Day Weekend of 2018. 
  • Tour the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum, which currently has on view World War I and the Leadbeaters. This family-owned business was open 1792 to 1933, and the exhibit highlights the apothecary’s sales to military customers during the war.  

Ongoing Programs

The Poppy Project: Honoring our Veterans 

Knitted poppiesAll are invited to help Alexandria knit and crochet poppies to honor those who served in WWI. It was after WWI that poppies, now a symbol of remembrance, were officially adopted by several allied nations, and this tradition continues 100 years later. Knitted or crocheted poppies can be any shade of red and two to four inches in diameter. Drop- off at The Lyceum: Alexandria’s History Museum (201 S. Washington Street) or any of the Alexandria Public Libraries by December 1, 2017.  Please include a card with your name or your group’s name for recognition.

You can use a pattern of your choice or download the knit or crochet pattern.

These poppies will be used to create a backdrop for an event marking the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, now known as Veteran’s Day in the United States. This event will take place November 11, 2018 at The George Washington Masonic National Memorial.  More details to come.   

Veterans Oral History Project

The Office of Historic Alexandria is collecting Oral Histories from veterans and active duty people living, working, or volunteering in the City of Alexandria.  The interview will include military service and how the concept of service is part of daily and/or civilian life.  If you or someone you know is interested in being interviewed, please contact the museum educator at Gadsby's Tavern MuseumClick here for more information about Oral History in the City of Alexandria. 

Lectures

A variety of lectures exploring World War I and its relation to today will be hosted at the museums of the Office of Historic Alexandria. See our calendar of events for current information about programs at all of our City museums. 

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