Travel

National WWI Museum in Kansas City brings war into focus

The National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial opened in 2006 in Kansas City, MO. (Susan R. Pollack)

The National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial opened in 2006 in Kansas City, MO. (Susan R. Pollack)

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.

The 9,000 poppies under a glass bridge is a poignant welcome to the National World War I Museum in Kansas City. Each poppy represents 1,000 combatant deaths during WWI. (Photo credit: Susan R. Pollack)

The 9,000 poppies under a glass bridge is a poignant welcome to the National World War I Museum in Kansas City. Each poppy represents 1,000 combatant deaths during WWI. (Photo credit: Susan R. Pollack)

The National WW1 Museum in Kansas City showcases artillery used by combatants on all sides, not just the Allies. (Susan R. Pollack)

The National WW1 Museum in Kansas City showcases artillery used by combatants on all sides, not just the Allies. (Susan R. Pollack)

Susan R. Pollack
Globetrotting journalist and former Detroit News staff writer Susan R. Pollack has covered travel since 1985, visiting scores of countries on five continents, 48 states, six Canadian provinces and hundreds of cities, islands and outposts along the way. From Alaska, the Galapagos and New Zealand to South Africa, Thailand and Wales, she has suffered the occasional lost luggage, jetlag and Montezuma’s revenge but still delights in sharing travel adventures with readers. In addition to The Detroit News, her award-winning stories and photos have appeared in major newspapers including the Dallas News, Toronto Star, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Chicago Sun Times; and magazines including Delta Sky, Midwest Living, Long Weekends, Experience Michigan, Jetsetter, Home & Away, Hour Detroit, Prevue Meetings and Group Tour. She has contributed to several books including "Rand McNally 2008 Ultimate NASCAR Road Trip Guide," and is the copy editor for secondchancetravels.com. She also has written for websites including gardendestinations.com and travelingmom.com.