If the Korean War is the “Forgotten War,” then WWI is the “Unknown War.” The first worldwide conflict is so overshadowed by the second it is little remembered today. In many ways, both world wars were actually just one big war with a twenty-year ceasefire in the middle. The unresolved conflicts and grievances of the treaty of Versailles which ended the battle only fomented a time bomb that would explode into the worst armed conflict the world has ever known.
World war one was different from the wars that preceded it in many ways. It was the first mechanized war. Gone were the single action weapons, replaced by machine guns. The fight was no longer found on land and sea exclusively but now included under the sea and in the air.
World War I also was the first war to have wide-scale use of chemical weapons. Nerve and Mustard gas was used and created wide-scale devastation. The gas was able to kill or maim thousands at a time.
While many wars had women assisting as nurses and sometimes spies, World War One was also the first war to include women in non-combat supporting roles.
World War I was different also because it was fought on multiple fronts (Europe, The middle east, and Africa). and involved losses on a scale no war had ever matched to that point. In total the “Great War’ as it was called (no one ever dreamed there be a second one worse than this) lasted from July 28th, 1914 to November 11, 1918. (The United States entered the war on April 2nd, 1917) By the time it ended, over the causalities would be over 37 million. Although the US was only involved in the war for about a year and a half, the casualties were over 430,000.
In 1921 work began in Kansas City to build a memorial to those who had died in the great war. An Obelisk over 217 feet tall was constructed on a hill just south of the downtown area. The work was completed in 1926.
The memorial included two small one-room halls on either side and for years served as the only accompanying museum. The base of the monument has two sphinxes one facing east the other west. both have wings covering their faces.
The monument stood as it was until the National World War One museum opened underneath the tower. This is the official museum and memorial for WWI and is the only one of its kind in all the United States.
I wanted to do a walk-through with you and show you some of the major exhibits. As you enter inside you will see a glass bridge that overlooks a field of poppies.
The museum has two short films the first one at the very beginning tries to explain how and why the war started. Some say it was nothing more than a family squabble. (The German Kaiser Wilhelm, Tsar Nicholas II and King George V of Great Britain were all cousins) But that seems an oversimplification. There were two opposing alliances Russia, Great Britain, and France vs. Germany, Austria-Hungary and The Ottoman Empire (Turkey) and both sides felt confident, they had a technological edge on the other and that the war would end quickly. My favorite quote about how it all started was from the British comedy “Blackadder’ who explained the origins of the war this way:
Captain Blackadder: You see, Baldrick, to prevent war in Europe, two superblocs developed: us, the French and the Russians on one side, and the Germans and Austro-Hungary on the other. The idea was to have two vast opposing armies, each acting as the other’s deterrent. That way there could never be a war.
Private Baldrick: But, this is a sort of a war, isn’t it, sir?
Captain Blackadder: Yes, that’s right. You see, there was a tiny flaw in the plan.
Private Baldrick: What was that, sir?
Captain Blackadder: It was bollocks.
The fight didn’t go quickly at all but almost immediately bogged down to a bloody stalemate in Belgium and France. Both the Germans and the British and French dug huge trenches facing each other. Every time one side would go “Over the top” and climb out of the ditch and try to advance they would be torn apart by artillery and machine guns. That is (sadly) where the gas came in. The gassing would amp up the casualties but did nothing to advance the lines.
The American involvement in the war was despite an extreme isolationist movement. The movement lost a lot of its momentum after the Germans sank the British liner “The Lusitania” ( a sister ship to The Titanic) which resulted in the death of 128 Americans mostly women and children. The Germans were also caught trying to bribe the Mexican government into declaring war on the United States.
The museum is divided into two parts. The first part covers the start of the war and the stalemate of the trench warfare and the second covers the US involvement. Given that the war was a stalemate before the Americans entering. Once the US got into the conflict, it tipped the scales for Britain and France. ( The Russians had pulled out in 1917) . But it wasn’t easy. In just 17 months of fighting the US suffered 116,516 deaths and over 300,000 injuries. This is a significant impact for such a short time.
The war ended with an uneasy peace established in Versailles, France. The treaty blamed Germany solely for the war and levied huge fines which put the nation genuinely into debt. Adolph Hitler would use the resentment the agreement caused in Germany as a pretext for militarization that would stoke the flames of the second world war just twenty years later.
So why should visit the World War One museum in Kansas City matter to you? I want to quote a couple lines from “Flanders field” (the poem about the poppies)
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
One could say we owe it to the men, women, and children who lost their lives, to hold the torch of remembrance. And yes, you could tell people die in every war, and it is true. But not remembering the dead of the great war and the price they paid to make things different, directly resulted in the next and even more sanguinary battle. We can’t afford to make the same mistake twice. Come to Kansas City enjoy the delicious BBQ, see the fantastic Art Museum, but take a moment to visit the WWI museum and just for a moment, hold the torch, and remember.