One hundred years ago this June, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, presumptive heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife, Sophie, were shot and killed while on a state visit to the Serbian city of Sarajevo. Within six weeks, all of Europe was at war, the result of a cascading series of open treaties and secret alliances.
America would hold off formally entering the conflict “over there” until April of 1917, but when it did, it turned the tide in favor of the British, French and Italians, redrawing not only the maps of Europe, Africa and the Middle East, but upgrading the status of the United States from wannabe to world power.
The story of the four-year conflagration known then as The Great War (the term “World War I” wouldn’t be used until 1939, after World War II began) is told — impressively and dramatically — at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City.
Last spring, I had the pleasure of touring the museum with a bunch of WWII vets, many of whose fathers had been “Doughboys” in the American Expeditionary Forces, led by Major Gen. “Black Jack” Pershing.
Built under the 1926 Liberty Memorial, the National World War I Museum opened in late 2006. Access to the 80,000-square-foot facility is gained via a glass bridge, underneath which are 9,000 red poppies, each representing 1,000 wartime fatalities.
Our volunteer guide, Jerry, meets us as we emerge from the 12-minute film overview of what led up to the war and shows us a model of the Belgian semi-automatic pistol that started it all.
“Believe it or not,” he begins, “some thought the war might be a good thing in that it would relieve the pressures of the old alliances and let Europe realign itself more appropriately for the 20th century. They also thought it would be over by Christmas.”
The latter, of course, did not happen as the first set of free-flowing galleries, which depict events prior to the American intervention, amply demonstrates. Glass cases display the bayonets, rifles, hand grenades and chemical weapons used by both sides, while both overhead screens and underfoot maps provide two-minute audio-visual accounts of the numerous back-and-forth campaigns.
But, as Jerry explains, the real stars of the war were the Lewis, Vickers and Hotchkiss machine guns that proved lethal against traditional direct assaults. As a result, the war quickly bogged down into protracted trench warfare (eventually there would be 35,000 miles of them), with the opposing armies biding their time until artillery fire softened up the opposition enough to justify going “over the top” for a charge across obstacle-ridden no man’s land. Life-sized replicas show the various styles of trenches, all of which were constructed in zigzag patterns to prevent a breech from becoming a rout.
In the next gallery, the war in the air and at sea are depicted, both of which were revolutionized by technological advances including the first Unterseeboots (U-boats) and the ability to fire a machine gun through a spinning propeller. Here, too, the net result was a draw.
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And so it might have remained had not the United States intervened. A 15-minute presentation in the Horizon Theater — played out over a wasteland diorama reminiscent of a scene from War Horse — recreates America’s reluctant decision to head “over there.”
The second set of galleries depicts American involvement, starting with mobilization, training, transportation, and logistical support, including the service of some 25,000 women.
As a result, it wasn’t until the spring of 1918 that “the Yanks” began turning the tide in battles such as Belleau Wood, St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, all of which are documented with maps, artifacts and materiel, including the latest offensive weapon, armored tanks. A walk-in crater allows visitors to begin to appreciate the destruction caused by a single 17-inch howitzer.
Finally, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the guns fell silent. Alas, the war to end all wars didn’t, as the WWII veterans can attest. A refreshingly honest exhibit reveals the mischief inherent in the vindictive Versailles Peace Conference, and thus why a war, joined by the Americans “to make the world safe for democracy,” ended up instead making it ripe for dictatorship and fascism.
Back above ground, we make our way across the expansive Egyptian Revival style terrace to Memory Hall, part of the original 1926 complex that now houses portions of what was once the world’s largest painting, the Pantheon de la Guerre, executed in Paris by 130 artists while the war raged, often less than 100 miles away.
Local funding for a monument to all who had served — and especially those who had died — had begun in late 1918, with the finished memorial dedicated by President Coolidge on Armistice Day, 1926, before a crowd of 150,000. The centerpiece of that memorial is the 217-foot, cylindrical limestone tower whose observation deck offers spectacular views of Union Station and the Kansas City skyline. Flanking its base are two enormous Assyrian Sphinxes, each depicted with their eyes shielded by their wings — one in dismay for the horrors of the recent war, the other in ignorance of the future.
Ironically, a major role in that future would be played by an unassuming resident of Kansas City who would serve as the captain of a field artillery unit in France during The Great War. But that’s a story for another day and another museum, the Harry S Truman Presidential Library in nearby Independence.