Saturday, September 13, 2008

The National World War One Museum, a Reason to Remember

The Korean War is often referred to as “The Forgotten War,” but I think World War One is equally forgotten, at least in the United States. The National World War One Museum and Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, however, strives to ensure that what was once called “The War to end all Wars,” is remembered.

After paying the entrance fee, visitors walk across a glass bridge, under which lie 9,000 poppies, each one representing 1,000 combatant deaths. The poppies pay homage to the poem “In Flanders Fields” by the Canadian Lt. Col. John McCrae.

A short introductory film does an excellent job of explaining the background of the conflict, and how powers that had no reason to go to war were thrust into the most brutal combat ever seen at that time by the assassination in Sarajevo of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Even though I minored in history in college and knew a fair amount about the why and the how of World War One, it amazed me to watch the film of soldiers eagerly strutting off to war in uniforms that were still colorful, with officers having feathers in their caps and cavalry thinking they still had a role on the battlefield.

After the first few fights, where commanders thinking they were still fighting the Napoleonic Wars forced their men to walk forward into machine guns, the soldiers quickly realized what a folly it was, and the museum makes the progression of the war - from “We’ll be home for Christmas” into something entirely different - understandable.

The right side of the building covers the war from its beginning in August, 1914, through 1916. Weapons, artillery pieces and uniforms complement the timeline running the length of the hall, giving visitors both the broad picture and the best thing we can get to an idea of what the average infantryman went through almost 100 years ago.

Quotations by soldiers, taken from their correspondence, put an emotional picture on the faces depicted in grainy black-and-white photos. One I found particularly descriptive was written by a French infantryman about an artillery bombardment.

“Shells of all calibers kept raining down in our sector. The trenches had disappeared, filled with earth. Our blinded, wounded, crawling and shouting soldiers kept falling on top of us and died splashing us with their blood. It was living hell,” he wrote.

A mock-up trench runs along the wall opposite the timeline, and depicts vignettes of life and death in what was home to millions of men for four years.

The figures depicting the cost of war are everywhere, but it is still hard for me to wrap my mind around them. Looking at a placard about the Battle of the Somme in 1916 told me that 20,000 British soldiers were killed on the first day of the offensive, their advance measured in yards, not miles. Roughly double that number were wounded, and that’s not counting the French and German losses.

Numbed by trying to imagine what that must have been like, and still failing to understand why it even happened, I went to the next room, which housed computerized interactive displays. Want to know about a particular tank or airplane? Use the laser pointer to select it and watch a short video on it. It’s great for kids, and also a good way to get more out of the museum if you have the time and the inclination.

At the far end of the museum is a second theater, showing another short film, but this one explaining the United States’ entrance into the war.

The entire left side of the museum (standing at the entrance door) is devoted to America’s experience in the war, from the first battles at Chateau Thierry and Bellau Wood in 1917, to the final offensives and the end of the war on Nov. 11, 1918.

As with the first portion of the museum, a timeline runs along the wall, complete with quotes from soldiers, civilians on the home front, nurses and civilians in the embattled areas. Again, uniforms and artifacts fill display cases, and there is even a French-built Renault FT-17 tank that was hit by an enemy shell during the war.

A few months before I was there, America’s last surviving World War One veteran, Frank Buckles, was photographed in front of the tank. It was sobering to think of what he must have felt when he visited the museum. Of the millions of Americans in uniform at that time, he is quite literally the last one alive, and one of only a handful worldwide.

Once he is gone, the only chance we will have to appreciate the American experience in that war will be in films, stories and archival documents, fortunately being preserved in places like the National World War One Museum.

The tower rising out of the center of the building visible in the photograph at the top of this post is the Liberty Memorial. A fixture on the Kansas City skyline, it has a simulated eternal flame at night.

I rode the elevator to the top on an absolutely gorgeous day, being served an unobstructed view of Kansas City, as close to being in the dead center of the United States as possible. I gazed off in the distance, seeing the towering skyscrapers of the modern metropolis and beyond, to the green flatland of the part of the country half my family comes from.

Surrounded by the peace and splendor I can enjoy today, I couldn’t help thinking about the museum below me, and the sacrifices made by my great grandfather’s generation. My father’s grandfather served in France in the First World War, suffering some of the horrible conditions I am fortunate enough to experience only through a museum. He lived in the trenches. He faced enemy fire. He was gassed. A quarter-century later, he volunteered to stand guard at a power station in Dutch Flat, Calif. against possible sabotage by our enemies in the Second World War. He did it armed with the Luger pistol he picked up in France.

I happened to look down on the well-kept back lawn of the museum and saw a group of Marines holding a change of command ceremony. It took no great leap of imagination to see them as exactly the same as the soldiers from World War One. I wasn’t sure what to think when I looked down on them. I felt pride and sadness, but more than anything else, I felt respect and thankfulness.

World War One ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. Unfortunately, it didn’t end anything. All it did was set up World War Two. U.S. Gen. Tasker Bliss put it best when he said, “The wars are not over….There will be the devil to pay all around the world.”


Museum Web site

1 comment:

a smiley face said...

If only more people our age shared this interest. You're truly special to appreciate this fascinating war. And I agree, it is truly "the forgotten war".

I want to locate a similar museum here in Europe to satisfy the dozens of questions I have about WWI and how the brave young men this side of the Atlantic experienced its horrors. It's become deeply personal to me and I'm so grateful I didn't have to live through it (though part of me wishes I had).

Another amazing post, Brandon. Thanks!