Christian Petersen (Danish-American, 1885-1961)
Battery D Memorial, 1924
Bronze atop granite boulder, 7 feet high
Corner of Murray and Kempton Streets, New Bedford, Massachusetts
Soon after his commission for the Spanish-American War Memorial in Newport, Rhode Island, Petersen was hired to create another major war monument. The veterans and citizens of New Bedford, Massachusetts wanted to honor the soldiers of their own Battery D, a National Guard unit which became part of the field artillery of the 26th (Yankee) Division, which had seen some of the most intense combat of World War I. Twenty-two of their number had perished in France, and the names of the dead, along with a detailed history of Battery D, were inscribed on plaques installed on the boulder.
The artillery of the Yankee Division, notably Battery D of New Bedford, gained renown because of the rapidity and deadliness of the barrages they were able to lay down in protection of the infantry in the battlefields of France. The New Bedford men used 75-millimeter guns provided by the French (the difficulties of bringing such weapons across the ocean meant that Americans often used French armaments), and they pressed it to its limits, sometimes firing as many as 35 shells per minute. The commander of the division told the story of a captured German officer who asked to see the automatic gun which had wounded him and overcome his forces. The officer was informed that the Americans had no automatic weapons, only the men of Battery D.
Petersen’s statue suggests the energy and regularity of Battery D’s deadly artillery barrages. In contrast to nearly every other World War I memorial, his soldier displays no flamboyant heroics nor is he charging the enemy or engaging in hand-to-hand combat. He is servicing his machine as he lifts one shell after another into the muzzle of an unseen gun. The disassociative quality of this image is a foretaste of the mechanized warfare of the subsequent wars of the century, much of which was pioneered during World War I. These soldiers would have been so busy loading their guns that they could have scarcely looked at anything else -- even the explosions that resulted. Petersen’s composition makes it difficult to peer into the face of the soldier, but when the face is seen, its plain features hold a grim and focused expression. The effect is to emphasize the anonymity of the soldier and this quality, along with the repetitive and inglorious task of endlessly loading the gun, imparts a distinct quality of modernity to the monument. The soldier’s task is similar to one he might have carried out in a factory before his enlistment in the National Guard. Because he seems rather like a laborer working a machine, this soldier is not part of a tradition of military statuary that celebrates the personal bravery and triumph of an individual soldier. It is the first of many works of art on war in which Petersen emphasizes its grim realities.