It would be a pity to let Veterans Day go by without mentioning my recent moving visit to the National WWI Museum at Liberty Memorial in Kansas City. It’s definitely worth a stop, especially as the 100th anniversary of the start of the so-called “War to End All Wars” or “Great War” approaches in July 2014.
From gas masks, grenades and other menacing weapons of all shapes and description to uniforms, photographs, posters and newspaper headlines, thousands of items tell the story of the horrific war from all sides, not just that of the Allies.
Sound effects, including words read aloud from soldiers’ letters and whizzing bullets, add to the drama. And interactive exhibits let museum-goers personally connect as they explore tanks in action, learn about camouflage and create a propaganda poster that they can email home.
Yet it’s the poignant scene near the museum entrance that stands out in my memory. A field of 9,000 poppies, each representing 1,000 dead combatants, is visible through a glass floor as visitors enter and walk across a glass bridge. The exhibit was inspired by the Western Front poppy field immortalized in the famous poem, “In Flanders Field,” by John McCrae.
The poppies, an iconic symbol of the war, equate to nine million deaths out of the 65 million men and women from 36 nations who served in the military during the four-year conflict, which raged from 1914 to 1918. The war finally ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
The staggering death toll haunted me as I explored the museum’s impressive collection, including a 1917 all-original Harley Davidson motorcycle and Gen. George Pershing’s headquarters flag.
I studied battlefield maps and learned (or possibly re-learned) a forgotten history class fact that World War I was marked by trench warfare, starting with a network of 400 miles of trenches across Belgium and France by the end of 1914. By 1917, 35,000 miles of trenches crisscrossed the Western Front.
I learned that Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany was Queen Victoria’s grandson and that one million animals — mules, pigeons, horses, oxen — died in the war.
I studied models of a German U-boat and the passenger ship Lusitania, which was torpedoed off the Irish coast in May, 1915, with 128 Americans aboard.
And I pondered a fast-firing, French artillery piece, with an innovative recoil system, that was the same kind of weapon used by Harry Truman. His photo in uniform with fellow World War I soldiers is visible through a magnifying glass installed in the window of a glass exhibit case.
Outside the museum, I struck up a conversation with a Vietnam vet from North Carolina, who I’d spotted taking lots of photos of the collection. “It’s great,” he said. “It gives you the entire chain of events from beginning to end that you really don’t learn in school.”
The museum, which opened in 2006, will be a centerpiece over the next four years in the centennial observation of World War I, with many special exhibits and remembrances planned. For information, check www.theworldwar.org.