Monuments, politics, and the cycle of forgetting: Remembering Bashka Paeff’s “Horrors of War”

In Kittery, Maine, beneath the shade of an oak tree on a peaceful green common stands a monument that once stood in the cross-hairs of a politician who didn’t like its focus on the horrors of war. Today, many pass this monument daily, in their car and on foot, but Bashka Paeff’s beautiful bronze bas-relief sculpture, “The Sacrifices of War,” is now an almost forgotten part of the landscape.  This Centennial Year of War War I offers an opportunity to remember Paeff’s original title: “The Horrors of War.”

Bashka Paeff’s sculpture, “The Sacrifices of War,” was dedicated in 1925 as Maine’s Sailors and Soldiers Memorial for those who died in World War I. The newly-opened Memorial Bridge made Route 1 the main gateway into Maine, and the monument, located in Kittery’s John Paul Jones Park, greeted visitors as they crossed the bridge.

Born in Russia in 1894, Paeff immigrated to Boston with her family as an infant. There, she attended the Massachusetts Normal Art School, and then the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, and worked as a subway token collector to support herself during the early stages of her art career.

The State of Maine commissioned the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial in 1919 to memorialize the soldiers and sailors who died in what was then called the Great War. The state had selected this site as part of the Memorial Bridge project designed to ease travel from Portsmouth to Kittery. At the time, an older wooden toll bridge, dating to the 1840s, connected the towns further upriver, but most people travelled back and forth by ferry to Badger’s Island.

Paeff’s mother holds her baby close to protect the child from the horror of war.

Paeff’s sculpture centers on mother protectively holding her child above two dead soldiers who lay by her feet. At the time, according to scholar Jennifer Wingate, the “patriotic mother” was the focus of wartime art and propaganda, and post-war memorials. Images of the patriotic mother might be combined with images glorifying war, for example, a rifle or helmet garlanded with laurel leaves. The “pacifist mother,” by contrast, was associated with Bolshevism and radicalism, and definitely out of the mainstream. Paeff’s portrayal of a pacifist mother, Wingate tells us, “expressed her firmly held view that war memorials should not glorify war” (31).

A dog tries to comfort a soldier who has died.

Another dead soldier has fallen on the left side of the protective mother.

So why did rural and conservative Maine choose to commission a pacifist monument to greet visitors at the state’s main entry point?

In 1924, Maine Governor Percival Baxter, a Republican, worked with a commission that included veterans and other military representatives to select Paeff’s design from 20 proposals. Baxter specifically had solicited proposals that portrayed the devastation and not the glory of war; he wanted a pacifist monument for Maine. The state contracted with Paeff to develop the sculpture and monument for $15,000 (a fee which included all costs associated with building the monument, not just for the sculpture itself).

And then there was an election.

Republican Ralph Owen Brewster, riding on a wave of populist anti-immigration sentiment, and aided by an endorsement from the KKK, was elected governor in 1924 and took office in 1925.

Governor Brewster did not like Paeff’s design, calling it a “more of a glorification of pacifism than of [Maine’s] part in the global conflict” (quoted in Wingate, 35). Paeff had already completed a large clay model of the sculpture, but Brewster declared that he would not pay for it unless Paeff modified the design. A political battle ensued with former Governor Baxter defending the monument in the Portland Press Herald:

The Memorial is striking and teaches a lesson….it portrays the sacrifices made by women and children as well as by men….It would have been easy to have selected the usual form of a memorial with soldiers in uniform carrying guns, making the usual appeal to the martial spirit. The present memorial, however, depicts what war really is” (quoted in Wingate, 36).

Paeff carved this low-relief image of fighting soldiers as part of a compromise with Governor Brewster.

Ultimately Brewster had to honor Paeff’s contract. However, she agreed to some small alterations. In the background, she added two fighting soldiers and a line of marching soldiers, carrying rifles and ready to fight. The background figures, however, are only visible to viewers standing close to the monument. To passersby, they are invisible. And the name of the monument was changed, from “The Horrors of War” to “The Sacrifices of War.”

This low-relief line of marching soldiers was also added to the monument to placate Gov. Brewster.

In an interesting twist, at the dedication ceremony, Major General Clarence R. Edwards, re-branded the monument to align with Governor Brewster’s view. The frightened mother, he said, was appealing “to the soldiery to save her babe from harm” (quoted from various news accounts in Wingate, 36).

Bashka Paeff was still a young woman when she created “The Sacrifices of War” and she went on to a have a prolific and distinguished career, actively working until her death in 1979.

But after a time, the controversy as well as the memorial were forgotten. The bronze tarnished green. The concrete urns that anchor the monument ended up in the Piscataqua River. In 2000-2001, a $40,000 grant paid for the monument’s cleaning and restoration, and “The Sacrifices of War” was rededicated at a ceremony with then-Governor Angus King in May, 2001.

Paeff’s original intent is evident in the memorial, which reminds us of war’s horrors  — something generals, soldiers and sailors, military families, and civilians in war zones know all too well, and which the rest of us can all too easily forget. Taking a moment to stop in John Paul Jones Park to look at Paeff’s monument provides us with an opportunity to remember.

Sources and resources

Bashka Paeff was well-known for realistic animal sculptures as well as war memorials, fountains, and portraits. Notable works include the Boy and Bird statue in the Boston Public Gardens, the Lexington Minute Men Memorial, and a statue of President Harding’s pet terrier, Laddie Boy.

“Motherhood, Memorials, and Anti-Militarism: Bashka’s Paeff’s Sacrifices of War, by Jennifer Wingate. Woman’s Art Journal. Fall/Winter 2008, 31-40. Available online via GoogleScholar (the link is not persistent, but the article is easily found).

“Pollution and salty air damage statue,” by Jeremy Corcoran. Portsmouth Herald. September 21, 2000. Updated December 16, 2010.

Sailors and soldiers reborn,” by Amy Wallace. Portsmouth Herald. December 30, 2000. Updated January 31, 2011.

Wisdom on war’s waste, ” by Nate Evans. Portsmouth Herald, June 1, 2001.

For more history on the Memorial Bridge, and links to old Kittery photos, see my post, On Bridges and the Jet Set.




About Dianne Fallon

Maniacal Traveler Dianne Fallon writes from a house in the woods in southern Maine. Her interests include travel, hiking and the outdoors, and history, and she is quickly becoming an Instagram-aholic, @themaniacialtraveler.
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2 Responses to Monuments, politics, and the cycle of forgetting: Remembering Bashka Paeff’s “Horrors of War”

  1. Donna Smith says:

    Thank you for bringing this to my attention. Well written and timely, I am particularly stricken by the mother and child who are usually treated as collateral damage.

    • Hi Donna-
      Thanks for reading. I have pass this monument so many times and until I began researching this past summer, I had no idea how atypical, unusual and ahead of its time Paeff’s sculpture was. We are so lucky to have this incredible piece in Kittery. I’d also like to learn more about Percival Baxter, as he certainly seemed like a forward-thinking person — the monument, the state park, the school for the deaf, and probably lots of other things I don’t know about.

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