It started with two shots fired in the dark. A continent on edge for years had now fallen into war. The “Great War” engulfed Europe following the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary. From 1914-1917, the United States managed to stay out of the war during its period of isolationism.
In 1915, more than 100 Americans were among the dead with the German navy’s sinking of the luxury ship Lusitania. Still, the United States withstood calls for it to enter the fray. In early 1917, the United States warned Germany to stop its unwarranted attacks on civilian vessels on the high sea or risk American retaliation. Germany abided…for now.
Once its leadership determined the Allies had become weakened and surrender was inevitable, Germany went back to its policy of submarine attacks on the high sea. More ships were sunk, including American merchant vessels. They didn’t see the United States as a true threat. Then, in the spring, Germany crossed the United States for the final time when it sought to finance a Mexican war with it.
Despite winning reelection on a platform that he “kept us out of the war,” President Woodrow Wilson sought to have the United States declare war on Germany. Within weeks, American forces joined its European allies in fighting the Germans and their alliance. Thus, on April 6, 1917, the “Great War” became a World War.
The war’s story is told through artifacts and film at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City. The museum is observing the 100th anniversary of the U.S. joining the war.
As visitors enter the museum, they cross a bridge over a poppy field. The poppy field represents 9 million people who died during the war, with each of the 9,000 poppies representing 1,000 deaths. More than 116,000 Americans died during the war.
The main gallery provides an indepth look at the war and its causes. Visitors are recommended to watch a 20-minute film prior to checking out the exhibits. The film does an excellent job of describing the social and economic environment of Europe, leading up to the Archduke’s assassination. A timeline in the gallery highlights key dates and events during World War I.
Weapons and artillery from several of the nations involved in the war are displayed. From a German cannon to American weapons, each item is authentic.
Military uniforms and equipment are included as part of the exhibits. They included women’s nurses uniforms.
A section of the gallery focuses on trench warfare. The Germans were probably the best at constructing trenches. The British trenches were poorly built. They were not designed for long term use. Much of the war on the western front (along the German/French border) was fought in the trenches.
Armies were unable to advance very far from the trenches. As a result, junk started piling up in them. Trash, ammo containers and human remains were among the items in trenches. With water and mud rampant in them, trenches would give way, collapsing on soldiers. A British officer referred to trenches as the “long grave.”
A film in the Horizon Theater provides a 10-minute film that documents what led to the United States joining the war. It provides an interactive look at the events.
Once the United States became involved, the war started to turn for the allies. In the end, the United States had almost 2 million soldiers in Europe. Combined, the American allies had 6.2 million soldiers fighting, while Germany had about 3.5 million.
While the ground forces battled for position, a new arena debuted during the war. Air power was highly sought after by both sides of the battle. Machine guns were mounted on the planes and synchronized to fire between propeller turns. Pilots fired at other planes, as well as dropped bombs on ground forces. The top ace was German pilot Baron Rettmeister Manfred von Richthofen – AKA “The Red Baron” – with 80 kills in the air.
As the United States and its allies progressed beyond the trenches, Germany started to lose its position along the front. In the end, Germany agreed to surrender Nov. 11, 1918. Known as Armistice Day, it marked the end of the World War. Though, not all fighting ended until about a year later.
Following the war, Kansas Citians sought to build a memorial to honor the men and women who served during the war. In 10 days, they raised $2.4 million (about $34 million today) for the Liberty memorial.
In 1921, President Calvin Coolidge and the supreme Allied commanders (including the U.S.’s General John J. Pershing) dedicated the memorial. About 100,000 people attended the ceremony.
In addition to the tower – which stands above the Kansas City skyline – two exhibition halls were built. Memory Hall is home to several murals, including one recognizing the dedication. Today, the exhibition halls house special exhibits. Memory Hall currently has an exhibit highlighting war posters from different countries. It also has a list of Kansas City soldiers who died during World War I. Exhibition Hall is temporarily closed. However, a special photo exhibit, “Fields of Battle, Lands of Peace,” is located outside near the Liberty Tower.
The current museum was created in 1998 as part of a plan to preserve the Liberty Tower. The tower and its plaza area had deteriorated over the years, being forced to close in 1994 for safety reasons. Kansas City voters approved a limited tax to support the revitalization of the tower. In addition, state, federal and private funds were used to help with the project.
The museum will observe the 100th anniversary of the United States joining the war throughout the next year, in conjunction with the World War One Centennial Commission.
The Kansas City museum provides a thorough look at the history of World War I in an interesting and engaging style. We strongly recommend visiting the museum anytime, but the next year will likely provide even more insight on the war.
For more information on the museum, please visit www.theworldwar.org.