“The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.”
— Edward Grey, 1st Viscount Grey of Fallodon (1862–1933, British Foreign Secretary) This was his remark on the eve of Britain’s entry into the First World War.
Today, the 4th of August 2014, marks the 100th anniversary of Britain’s declaration of war on Germany, following Germany’s declaration of war on Belgium and France the previous day. The First World War, known as the War to End All War, had officially begun. More than two-and-a-half years later the United States would become involved in the conflict when it declared war on Germany on April 6th, 1917. New York City’s premiere fighting force, the Seventh Regiment, distinguished itself during the conflict and was appropriately honored.
The history of the Seventh Regiment of New York stretches back to 1806. That year British warships sailed into New York Harbor, claiming the right to seize and search American vessels and remove British subjects. New York’s outraged citizens organized a state defense force, the Seventh Regiment of New York. The regiment soon saw action again during the War of 1812.
In 1849, 20,000 working-class demonstrators overran the well-to-do neighborhood around the Astor Place Opera House. The crowd had come to protest a British actor appearing at the opera house. The demonstrators soon turned their anger against New York’s wealthiest citizens who lived nearby. Their houses were bombarded with bricks and rocks, braking windows and causing panic. The action became known as the Astor Place Riots. The Seventh Regiment was called out; it fired into the crowd, wounding some, but dispersing it. The upper classes were relieved and very grateful; the Regiment became its favorite, drawing its members from the city’s upper crust for years to come. The composition of the Regiment’s membership earned it the nicknames, “The Silk Stocking Regiment” and “The Dandy Seventh.”
Following the Civil War, a memorial, “The Citizen Soldier,” was placed near Central Park’s Sheep Meadow, where the Seventh Regiment drilled. Sculpture John Quincy Adams Ward’s bronze, depicting a single soldier from the Seventh Regiment, would not be the Park’s last tribute to the Silk Stocking Regiment.
In April of 1917, the Seventh Regiment, renamed the 107th Infantry, set sail with General John F. O’Ryan’s 27th Division as part of America’s commitment to the war already raging in Europe. With this deployment, the Seventh Regiment participated in every war since the end of America’s War for Independence. Among the departing doughboys was a young art student Karl Illava (1896–1954); during the course of the war Mr. Illava rose to the rank of sergeant major.
In Northeast France, Germany had established a complex defensive system, known as the Hindenberg Line; the 107th participated in the assault on it during September 1918. The successful campaign came at a steep price; the Dandy Seventh suffered casualties totaling 60 percent of the unit. For their bravery, four unit members were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, one posthumously.
Upon their return from “over there,” thousands of New Yorkers flocked to Fifth Avenue to welcome home their heroes. On March 25, 1919 the New-York Tribune, established by Horace Greeley in 1841, wrote “It was still the old 7th, the ‘Dandy 7th,’ that marched up Fifth Avenue yesterday.” New Yorkers did not care about its new designation as the 107th Infantry.
Sergeant Major Karl Illava, no longer the naïve art student who had sailed from New York Harbor in 1917, was awarded the commission by the Seventh Regiment New York 107th United Infantry Memorial Committee to depict his own regiment in action. Formed in 1926 the Committee aimed to erect a memorial to its brave doughboys who had fought “to end all war.” Mr. Illava would use his keen attention to detail, and his strong memory of the horrors that he and his fellow Seventh Regiment soldiers suffered through when creating this lasting tribute to their memory.
Rather than using his surviving comrades-in-arms, Mr. Illava selected businessmen and other civilians to serve as models. Paul Cornell, an advertising agency executive, posed for the central figure; the artist chose him because he represented “a typical American.” The figures on either side of Mr. Cornell are Kenneth Logan, a Scarsdale realtor, and Ollin J. Coit, big-game hunter and a friend of Theodore Roosevelt. Although the men were not members of the 107th Infantry Regiment some of them had served in the military.
The resulting work of art is dramatic and gripping. Illava’s first-hand experiences with the terrors of war explode in this group of seven soldiers in the attack at the Western Front. Fear as well as determination is skillfully rendered by the sculptor in the faces of the young men. Two hold outstretched rifles with fixed bayonets; another supports the limp figure of a fellow soldier in his arms. The figure on the far right has its head wrapped in bandages. The chaos of battle is represented by the swirling flame-line mass of bronze through which the soldier figures trod. Illava used his own hands as models for the soldiers’ hands.
This dynamic memorial, the masterwork of the young sculptor who knew his subject matter well, was dedicated on September 27, 1927. Architects Rogers and Haneman designed the 25-foot wide, stepped granite base that supports the seven larger-than-life-sized bronze figures. Located where East 67th Street abuts Fifth Avenue, when seen from Fifth Avenue, the powerful grouping appears as if it is advancing from the trees of Central Park, as they may have done from the woodlands of France.
The memorial is sited here because two blocks to the east, at 67th Street and Park Avenue, stands the Seventh Regiment Armory. This massive headquarters, completed in 1880, has a 55,000-square foot drill hall. In 1993, as part of a nationwide force reduction, the 107th Infantry was deactivated. Today, the Seventh Regiment Armory is used for large-scale theatrical presentations and art exhibitions. Each January, the Winter Antiques Show is held here.