This article was originanly published in the May 2018 Trenton Downtowner.

Soldiers departing from Camp Dix

On October 8, 1918, Oscar Knudsen joined fellow Trentonians Spencer Bloor and Frank Kowalski in a select fraternity: soldiers who died in World War I.

Knudson, like hundreds of other young New Jersey men, had heard the song lyrics promising “Just Like Washington Crossed the Delaware, So Will Pershing Cross the Rhine” and went to fight in what many thought would be the “war to end all wars.”

This Memorial Day the New Jersey State Museum, which overlooks the same river evoked in the song, is continuing to commemorate those men and the war with two exhibitions marking the centennial of the end of the Great War.

One exhibition — “Embattled Emblems: Posters and Flags of the First World War” — includes photographs, flags, and propaganda posters from the New Jersey State Museum, State Archives, and the State House Flag Collection.

A good place to start is the exhibition space where the photo portraits of 29 New Jersey men — many actually teenagers — gaze like ghosts from grayish walls.

And if one of the soldiers has a tale to tell, it’s Trenton’s Needham Roberts, a 17-year-old American of African heritage. He lied about his age, joined the Harlem Hellfighters (369th Infantry Regiment), was sent into battle, and became history. After he and fellow Hellfighter Harry Johnson demonstrated fierce bravery while defending French troops from German attack, they became the first Americans ever to receive the French Croix de Guerre.

Needham Roberts of the Harlem Hellfighters

Now Roberts returns to Trenton as a life-sized photograph seeming to stand guard among his fallen brothers and look beyond the room to a large photograph of young soldiers celebrating their deployment to Europe by waving hats and showing off the sign “Good Bye Camp Dix.” Now known as Fort Dix, the camp was established to train World War I soldiers.

The somber images of the men contrast with the bright colors and silk fabrics of the 16 World War I-era flags and Regimental Colors with Battle Honors on display below them.

And while a flash of fabric can fool the eye, words from the past remind the viewer that “war is hell.” It is something Lt. Grover Hinzmann of Passaic makes clear in a statement he wrote years ago and included next to the 114th U.S. Infantry Regimental Colors: “The dead and dying were strewn all over the field and machine guns were belching death and destruction. I stopped to bandage the wounded and the enemy shot them again, one of the men was lying across my lap when he was shot.”

In addition to the faces, flags, and words, sights and sounds of the era are present via a video monitor showing actual images of battles, soldiers carrying the wounded around fallen comrades, burning cities, and citizens abandoning homes and towns.

Those painful images likewise collide with the sound of upbeat and optimistic songs from the era. They are songs that have become part of our collective memory: “Over There,” “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” and “Just Like Washington Crossed the Delaware.”

A detail of Oscar Kokoschka’s image of the Statue of Liberty.

Surrounding this small chamber is an exhibition that combines artifacts, including a World War I uniform owned by Trenton soldier Arthur Ashmore — and propaganda posters created to support the war by appealing to an extreme of emotions and demographics.

For young men, there is New England artist Charles Buckler Fall’s poster “E-E-E Yah Yip Go Over with U.S. Marines,” depicting a determined fighter with raised rifle and bayonet. For mothers, there is “Feed the Fighter,” a black-and-white image of a worn soldier in a trench (it was created by artist and World War I army captain Wallace Morgan). Magazine illustrator William Henry Coffin’s image of Joan of Arc was used to entice women to “Save Your Country — Buy War Saving Stamps.” And there is the cloying image of a little girl clutching a bond to her heart and saying, “My daddy bought me a government bond for the Third Liberty Loan. Did Yours?”

Here visitors also come face to face with another Trenton ghost forever tied to the war: President Woodrow Wilson. The presence of the former Governor of New Jersey — who often walked along the park behind the statehouse — appears in the state-commissioned bust by Blanche Nevin, considered one of the nation’s first prominent woman sculptors. The dark figure stands next to the words he uttered to declare war on Germany on April 2, 1917.

The other exhibition is “Shifting Views: Artists Who Experienced World War I.” As museum materials say, the images were not made to support or protest the war cause, but “rather reflect the life’s work of complex human beings who made them.”

The exhibition consists of about three dozen works by 22 artists who served with either the Allies or the Central Powers — with the majority of works by German/Austrian artists donated by the late Dr. Albert Rosenthal and his wife, Princeton resident Carol.

While none of the art represents these artists’ experiences in the war, and text information is slight, the work encourages exploration with some interesting results found in essays and letters elsewhere.

Yet there if there is one image that resonates, it is Central Powers soldier and noted Austrian artist Oscar Kokoschka’s image of the Statue of Liberty, created during his visit to the United States in 1966.

Gaze at it and think of the other exhibition and the faces of the boys from Trenton who never got a chance to see it again.

Embattled Emblems: Posters and Flags of the First World War and Shifting Views: Artists Who Experienced World War I, State Museum, 205 West State Street. Through August 19. Free, donation requested. 609-292-5420 or statemuseum.nj.gov.