A damaged war machine, officially known as a Renault FT-17 tank and commonly used by U.S. forces during World War I, rests in retirement on a museum floor, scarred with a gaping hole. A marker indicates that a German 77-millimeter artillery piece, like one nearby, was responsible. Visitors walk through a man-made crater, standing where a French farmhouse would have been had it not been struck by a 17-inch howitzer shell. They can peer into re-created trenches, with sounds of bullets flying and soldiers tramping through mud.
This was World War I, and this is the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, opened to the public in 2006. In some ways World War I, which was fought between 1914 and 1918, has become the forgotten war for Americans, but that never should have been allowed to happen. Some confuse it with World War II. A few years back, a nationally known reporter asked a brigadier general visiting the museum, “Did you fight in World War I?”
It’s not all ancient history. Metaphorically, the world was fighting World War I as recently as the 1990s. The Balkan civil wars of the mid-1990s could easily be viewed as an extension of the war.
But most people know little about the war once known as the Great War and the War to End All Wars. The fighting on the Western Front ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 — the day we now celebrate as Veterans Day, once known as Armistice Day.
One enters the complex by crossing a re-created Western Front poppy field, reminiscent of the famed John McCrae poem “In Flanders Field.” Each of the 9,000 poppies represents 1,000 dead combatants. The museum is divided into two sections — one covering the years 1914-17, before the United States entered the war, and the other delving into the period in which the United States took an active role in the fighting, 1917-18.
Why was it fought? An enigmatic statement spoken by a narrator begins an introductory film: “No one can say precisely why it happened — which may be, in the end, the best explanation for why it did.”
The details are told through an extensive timeline, the mass of which may seem intimidating.
Then again, perusing the timeline is the only way to uncover such little-known gems as the following from 1916: Future author “J.R.R. Tolkien takes part in the Battle of the Somme. Tolkien’s first experience on the front comes on a Friday, July 14, with an unsuccessful attack on the village of Ovillers. His unit is later relieved after days of fighting.”
As at most modern museums, interactive exhibits engage visitors on personal and creative levels. You can use a light pen to design your own patriotic — or propaganda — poster, then e-mail it home.
Or take some time to listen to fighting men’s letters read aloud as you look inside a typical trench. A German soldier gets teary-eyed on Christmas Eve in 1915 as he keeps company with his own little tree in his trench. A French infantryman offers: “Shells of all calibers kept raining on our sector. The trenches had disappeared, filled with earth. The air was unbreathable. Our blinded, wounded, crawling and shouting soldiers kept falling on top of us and died splashing us with their blood. It was living hell.”
As the political map evolved as a result of World War I, so did the means of warfare. A virtual armory is here. Body armor, straight from the legends of Lancelot and Arthur, was tried early on, but soon tanks became the ultimate battlefield weapon.
Yet no other dimension of the war saw such fast-paced advances as air combat. The heavier-than-air flying machine, just a decade past its birth at Kitty Hawk, evolved from a reconnaissance machine to fighters, dropping bombs, strafing trenches and gunning for one another. Three replicas of biplanes hang from the ceiling, examples of the growth of air warfare during the conflict.
The home front is not omitted. A poster calls on women at home to do their part. “Joan of Arc saved France” is printed above a photo of the martyred saint. “Women of America. Save Your Country. Buy War Savings Stamps.”
Representing the other side are the posted words of a 12-year-old German schoolgirl, Piete Kuhr: “Another collection has been announced at school, for copper, tin, lead, zinc, brass, and old iron … I turned the whole house over from top to bottom. Grandma cried, ‘Why don’t you give them your lead soldiers instead of cleaning me out?’ So my little army had to meet their deaths.”
If you go
Museum information: National World War I Museum, 100 W. 26th St., Kansas City, Mo., 64108, 1-816-784-1918, www.theworldwar.org. Admission: $14-$8; free for military.
Lodging: Sheraton Suites Country Club Plaza, 770 W. 47th St., 1-816-931-4400, www.sheratoncountryclubplaza.com; Holiday Inn Aladdin (boutique hotel), 1215 Wyandotte St., 1-816-421-8888, www.hialaddin.com; Sleep Inn, 7611 NW. 97th Terrace, 1-816-891-0111, www.sleepinn.com.