Saturday, November 28, 2015


One of Kansas City's biggest claims to fame is the National World War I Museum and Memorial, which Congress designated America's official World War I Museum in 2004.
The story is that in a fit of post-war patriotism, Kansas City residents raised $2 million for a war memorial in less than two weeks, an astonishing sum in those days. When construction was completed in 1926, the museum was dedicated by President Calvin Coolidge. All five Allied Forces generals attended the dedication.

The memorial is built in the Egyptian Revival style and is marked by a massive obelisk called the Liberty Memorial Tower. It soars 268 feet and has an observation deck on the top. The current museum, which was added later, is partially underground and is accessed by large doors below the tower.
View from behind
The inscription on the base of the Tower, seen below, reads, "In honor of those who served in the World War in defense of liberty and our country."
Flanking the Tower are two Assyrian sphinxes. They look very similar, but the one named "Memory" faces east towards France and shields its eyes from the horrors of war, and the one named "Future" faces west and shields its eyes from the uncertainty of what is to come:
Exhibit Hall, which is also near the Tower and the Sphinxes, used to be the main museum gallery from 1926 to 2006. A major remodel added the much larger exhibit space (32,000 sq. ft.) below this level that is now being used as the museum.
Beneath a glass walkway that leads into the entrance to the main museum are 9,000 red poppies. Why that number? Each one represents 1,000 combatant deaths. Some sources say there were as many as 11 million combatant deaths. Very sobering.
I can't ever see these delicate, colorful flowers without thinking members of the American Legion Auxiliary in my hometown who used to go door-to-door each spring selling red crepe paper poppies for a quarter to raise money that was given exclusively to disabled and hospitalized veterans. Since 2013 poppy funds are also being donated to active duty military personnel and their families with medical and financial needs. The Auxiliary Poppy Program raises about $2 million/year.

I'm also reminded of Major John McCrae's tender, poignant poem "In Flanders Fields." McCrae, who was a physician in the Canadian army, wrote the poem in May 1915 after presiding over the funeral of a close friend who had been killed at the Battle of Ypres. (For more about the writing of the poem, go here.) It was actually this poem that led to the poppy becoming the symbol of remembrance of the victims of the Great War. McCrae himself died in January 1918 in a field hospital in France after contracting pneumonia and meningitis.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Visiting the award-winning museum is a sobering experience. Words and images throughout bombard the viewer with harrowing information.
Artillery placed in front of words and images add a touch of reality.

Biographical information on the major players is presented:

The history of various alliances is detailed:

A month-by-month timeline winds through the various exhibits, creating context for the main events:
When I ask my students about where they have seen propaganda, they almost always talk about Nazi Germany, but it is important to remember that it is a universal tactic:

A sign in the museum notes: "Nothing symbolizes World War One more than trench warfare. After the failure of the German offensive in 1914, the armies in northern France found themselves in a stalemate--unable to outflank or break through their opponents' lines. Both sides dug deep trenches to protect their positions. By the end of 1914, a network of trenches extended over 400 miles across Belgium and France. Over the next four years, the lines would hardly move. Infantry charges, the traditional tactic to take a position, could rarely overwhelm troops in a strongly fortified trench. Defenders, armed with modern weapons such as machine guns and rapid-fire artillery, could devastate attackers and keep any capture of frontline trenches from becoming a breakthrough."

A re-creation of the trenches lines one long wall of the musuem. It can be viewed from ground level:
. . . or from a viewing deck above. Narration describing a battle, carefully placed spotlights, and intermittent explosions heighten the horror:
We had seen a similar display in the Woodrow Wilson Museum in Staunton, Virginia, a few years prior, but this one is much larger and more dramatic. Confronting the claustrophic, dark, dirty ditch and imagining it full of soldiers in the stifling heat of the summer and the crippling cold of the winter is a powerful experience.

The term "walking wounded," used to refer to those who were injured but could still get themselves to a place of safety or medical care, was coined in World War I:
Attention is giving to the women who played such a vital role in this war not only as nurses in the war zone, but as workers in the fields and factories at home. 
For example, according to information at the museum, in July 1914, 3.3 million British women worked in paid employment, but by July 1919, 4.7 million did. The same was true in the United States, Germany, France--every country whose male work force was being drained by the war.

World War I was the first major conflict that involved airplanes:

It was also the first to use submarine warfare. Germany's U-boats are legendary. In 1914, Germany had 20 U-boats. In 1915 a German U-boat sunk the Lusitania, a British passenger ship, killing 1,198 passengers and crew. By 1917, Germany had 140 U-boats, and that was the year Kaiser Wilhelm set a course of unrestricted submarine warfare against Allied military and civilian ships. In April 1917, U-boats sunk 800,000 tons of Allied shipping. Britain responded by creating a convoy system to protect supply ships.
By the way, even in World War I the Marines had a unique reputation. I guess it's always been cool to be a Marine:
With airplanes dropping bombs from the skies and submarines sending torpedoes underwater, THIS was the technology for civilian automobiles:
The ambulances being driven in the field look a little more up-to-date, but maybe that's just because the wood of the car above has been replaced by metal. The one below is similar to what Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, e. e. cummings, and Somerset Maugham would have been driving. (This site says at least 23 well-known literary figures drove ambulances during the war. That's a crazy way to get material for your next writing project, don't you think?)
By the end of the war, it seemed every eligible man was a participant:
The chart below shows the number of troops engaged in battle from the four main participating countries that were left after Russia had pulled out of the war in February 1918. The red figures at the top of the left column are the Americans (1.95 million troops), the middle figures are the French (2.55 million), and the bottom are the British (1.7 million). The right column represents the Germans (3.5 million), who were overwhelmingly out-numbered. All together, the four major powers at this point had 9.7 million troops in battle.
That makes the final statistics almost incomprehensible. By the end of the conflict in 1918, a staggering 9 to 11 million military personnel were dead, 1.7 to 2.2 million of them from Russia, whose number of casualties was comparable to Germany's. Austria had 1.2 to 1.4 million casualties, France had almost 1.4 million, Great Britain had about 1 million, Italy had about 600,000, and Serbia had about 400,000. By comparison, the US suffered about 116,000 casualties, a lot for a war on foreign soil, but not many compared to some of the other countries.
Displays like this one, with the heartbreaking phrase "your boy," reminded me of the relative youth of the combatants:
Information at the site notes: "The four-year war left deep wounds. In Europe, where the loss of human life was unprecedented, temporary graves were still scattered around the battlefields. A sad duty of the living was to record the dead and relocate their graves to vast cemeteries with endless rows of stone markers. After the war, many countries built a 'Tomb of the Unknown Soldier' to honor the multitudes of unidentified dead. Throughout the war-torn nations, there was a pervasive sense of loss. Returning veterans tried to restart their lives, but some never found a place in civilian society. Millions of families had to learn to live without loved ones. With so many millions of young men and women dead from the effects of the war, it seemed as if an entire generation had been lost."

Pictures and text give information about the unstable peace after Germany's surrender:

A video about post-war Germany made my think of my German grandmother, a young woman at the time:

Post-war prosperity in the United States:

. . . is contrasted with struggles in Europe, particularly in Germany:
Visitors leave knowing that this was just Part I of the conflict in Europe. It's hard to imagine that Europe could go through it all again just twenty years later.


Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania covers in great detail the events leading up to the attack on the luxury ocean liner sailing from New York to Liverpool in 1915. Its sinking by a German U-boat helped draw the United States into World War I. Along with detailing the politics of the day and the choices that could have prevented this tragedy, Erik Larson introduces many of the passengers and even the captain of the U-boat that sank the ship to his readers, giving a very human face to what, for most, is a cold, historical fact. Larson also includes a lot of information about the progress of the Great War in Europe, making this a perfect read in conjunction with a visit to the National World War I Museum.

Other books by Larson that I've enjoyed include:
* In the Garden of Beasts, which deals with the onset of World War II and which I wrote about in a previous post about Berlin.
* The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, which describes the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and the role of two men: Daniel Burnham, the genius architect in charge of the fair's construction, and H. H. Holmes, a serial murderer who used the fair to lure his victims. 
* Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, which not only tells the story of the storm that completely wiped out Galveston, Texas, in 1900, but also tells the story of a meteorologist who completely misread the signs warning of the coming fury.


  1. Wow, an incredible review of the museum. I did not recognize the sphinx shielding its eyes from the horror. I would like to see other perspectives of it. The poem of Flander's Field brings tears to my eyes. The horror that bad leaders bring upon people of the world is unspeakable.

  2. I find these war museum so tragically interesting. That sphinx is a perfect symbol of war. I can still remember an ancient (at least to me) WW I soldier who came to our middle and junior high schools to talk about his experiences. I loved those assemblies. War is too easily forgotten.

  3. I have enjoyed all of the other Erik Larson books you listed. I will now plan to read Dead Wake.

  4. As I write this from a city filled with War Memorials, it's interesting to read about another one, so far away. Two of my favorite memorials here are both WWI Memorials--one tucked away on the side of the Lincoln Reflecting Pool, a memorial to DC's war dead, and another--a shining angel atop a tower, is just south of the Executive Office Building (next to the White House). As always, the one constant refrain in my mind is "too many dead, too much fighting," commemorated by the poppies in the opening pictures.