We are very lucky here in my home town to be the home of the only WWI museum in the U.S. It’s on the site of Liberty Memorial, the first national monument to WWI, and the only place where the five supreme commaders of the Allied Forces ever met together, in 1921. The museum has only been here since 2006, and it is truly a world-class experience.
My daughter and I have been wanting to tour the museum again all year, it being the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the war. I’ve been hearing about a new exhibit in honor of that anniversary, “Over by Christmas.” This area includes displays commemorating the initial months of the war; the fervor and intense patriotism that led so many unsuspecting young men to enlist, believing they would fight in hand-to-hand combat battles and be able to declare victory by the holidays. It’s painful to reflect on just how wrong they were. Having toured the bulk of the museum previously, Middle Sister and I chose to begin our visit here this time.
After passing under Liberty Memorial and entering through imposing, 10-foot doors, visitors are greeted by a glass bridge under which is a field of poppies, immediately recalling the bloody fields of Flanders. It’s a sight that brings tears to my eyes no matter how many times I see it.
After crossing the poppy field and entering the museum proper, visitors choose to begin either with the 1917-1918 section (American involvement) or 1914-1917, the first years of war. There’s also the option of beginning with a documentary outlining the social, technological, and political history leading up to the Great War. Though we’d seen it before, it was worth another viewing to refresh our memories.
We then started at the chronological beginning, the first years of the war. All the typical museum fare is there: propaganda posters, uniforms, weapons, displays of statistics, artifacts. But what hits the hardest are the re-created trenches. They’re surrounded by 12-foot tall “mud” walls, with numerous peepholes where we looked through to see what the soldiers would have seen, and listened to recorded diary entries and letters home from the troops – whose suffering and trauma are nearly unimaginable.
The link between the “early years” and “American involvement” wings is a panoramic video display of another documentary describing the events and political climate that led to U.S. finally joining the effort. Below the 50-yard wide screen is another re-creation of a trench, and between showings of the video, a haunting scene of soldiers’ silhouettes is displayed.
A highlight of the “American Involvement” wing is a replica of a bomb crater, which visitors can enter and view from all sides. While inside, one listens to more diary entries and letters home, written by soldiers, nurses, drivers, and other participants.
Near the end of this wing is an exhibit about emergency medical care in the trenches, in nearby hospitals, and in longer-term hospitals further away from the front lines. Here one reads statistics about casualties and deaths before moving on to the displays and video about Armistice Day – the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Visitors leave the museum contemplating the far-reaching implications of the terms of armistice, including the creation of various spheres of influence in the middle east, the beginnings of an Israeli state in Palestine, and punitive settlement against Germany. Which of course, soon led to the declaration of revenge that was World War II.
It was a a sobering afternoon, this “last hurrah of summer” for my daughter and myself. But I’m thankful for the opportunity to reflect and remember.