Me­mo­rial to ob­serve U.S. cen­ten­nial of Great War

The Washington Times Daily - - LIFE - BY HEATHER HOLLINGSWORTH

KANSAS CITY, MO. | Cross­ing a glass walk­way that spans a field of 9,000 pop­pies, vis­i­tors to the of­fi­cial U.S. me­mo­rial to World War I are trans­ported to a time when tanks and air war­fare were new and the hope­ful flow­ers sprang up on the bar­ren, trench-dot­ted bat­tle­fields where hun­dreds of thou­sands of sol­diers died.

The mu­seum, which is housed un­der a tower that rises 217 feet into the Kansas City sky­line and is topped by a gi­ant flame, will be the site of a re­mem­brance Thurs­day to mark the 100-year an­niver­sary of the U.S. en­try to the war.

The pop­pies that vis­i­tors pass while en­ter­ing the mu­seum rep­re­sent the 9 mil­lion com­bat deaths of the Great War, about 116,000 of them Amer­i­cans.

“In Flan­ders fields the pop­pies blow. Be­tween the crosses, row on row,” goes a fa­mous poem about the Bel­gian bat­tle­fields where hun­dreds of thou­sands of sol­diers died on the war’s West­ern Front.

With the cen­ten­nial of the fight­ing draw­ing more at­ten­tion to the war, more than 200,000 vis­ited the mu­seum last year, an in­crease of about 50 per­cent from three years ear­lier. They in­cluded vis­i­tors from more than 70 coun­tries.

The site’s Egyp­tian Re­vival-style mon­u­ment was erected in a burst of post­war pa­tri­o­tism af­ter $2.5 mil­lion was raised in less than two weeks in 1919, an amount that would be equal to about $35 mil­lion today. Chil­dren helped by go­ing door to door col­lect­ing money in what was “an early 20th cen­tury story of crowd­sourc­ing,” mu­seum spokesman Mike Vi­etti said.

So note­wor­thy was the achieve­ment that Al­lied com­man­ders from Bel­gium, Great Bri­tain, Italy, France and the U.S. gath­ered in 1921 to ded­i­cate the site. It is lo­cated across the street from the Kansas City train sta­tion that more than half of U.S. troops passed through be­fore be­ing shipped over­seas.

When the mon­u­ment was com­pleted five years later, a crowd of more than 150,000 turned out to hear Pres­i­dent Coolidge speak at the ded­i­ca­tion.

But years of de­ferred main­te­nance led the site to be closed in 1994. A mas­sive $102 mil­lion trans­for­ma­tion fol­lowed, funded by a sales tax, bond is­sue and pri­vate do­na­tions.

The ex­te­rior was re­paired, and the de­sign firm be­hind at­trac­tions such as the United States Holo­caust Me­mo­rial Mu­seum in Wash­ing­ton was tapped to cre­ate a mu­seum that would tell World War I’s story of as­sas­si­na­tion, em­pires swept away and na­tions born.

The site, now known as the Na­tional World War I Mu­seum and Me­mo­rial, was made of­fi­cial in leg­is­la­tion that Pres­i­dent Obama signed in 2014.

The mu­seum’s col­lec­tion of doc­u­ments and ar­ti­facts has a global breadth, cov­er­ing the pe­riod be­fore and af­ter the U.S. en­tered the war. The con­flict ended in 1918 with the Treaty of Ver­sailles, though many his­to­ri­ans be­lieve the treaty’s terms helped set the stage for World War II a gen­er­a­tion later.

Among the items used to tell the com­plex story of the con­nec­tion be­tween the two wars is the tu­nic and cape of Paul von Hin­den­burg, a Ger­man com­man­der and na­tional hero who later be­came Ger­many’s pres­i­dent and in 1933 ap­pointed Adolf Hitler as chan­cel­lor.

Vis­i­tors also can see the rapidly evolv­ing weaponry that led to wide­spread ca­su­al­ties as com­man­ders strug­gled to adapt. There’s a Bri­tish tor­pedo, a U.S.-made Naval mine, a life-size replica of a Bri­tish bi­plane known as the Airco DH.2 and a French Re­nault tank that Mr. Vi­etti de­scribed as a weapon of “ter­ror as well as a weapon of war.”

One ex­hibit highlights the dam­age an ar­tillery shell would have done to a house in the French coun­try­side, while an­other al­lows vis­i­tors to glimpse inside repli­cas of the trenches where dough­boys fought and of­ten died. In the Hori­zon Theater, World War I film footage plays on a 100-foot screen above a full-scale tableau of no man’s land.

The site’s orig­i­nal mu­seum now hosts ro­tat­ing exhibitions, with the lat­est high­light­ing pro­pa­ganda posters.

Matthew Nay­lor, the pres­i­dent and CEO of the mu­seum, keeps his grand­fa­ther’s wartime shav­ing kit on display in his of­fice. While is­sued by the Bri­tish, it was made in Ger­many. He noted that the two coun­tries were trad­ing part­ners be­fore the war.

The “fragility” of world re­la­tions at the time, Mr. Nay­lor said, has parallels to today that “some would say are omi­nous.”

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