Remembering the other World War: A moving visit to our nation’s only museum dedicated exclusively to WWI

Poppy field at the entrance of the museum
MinnPost photo by Catherine Watson
A bridge of glass and red poppies by the thousands

KANSAS CITY, MO. — From the moment you open its heavy, bunker-like bronze doors, the National World War I Museum here is a shocking place. It needs to be.

The first shock comes just a few steps in: a bridge of glass that you must cross to get to the exhibits beyond. The effect is startling enough to stop visitors in their tracks, but what made me freeze on the glass bridge was what lay beneath my feet:

Poppies — red poppies — a whole garden of blood-red poppies, the artificial kind sold every year in memory of fallen soldiers.

There are 9,000 red poppies beneath the museum’s glass bridge. Each represents 1,000 soldiers — 9 million in all — the total number killed in what was then called the Great War.  

The poppies’ bright round faces gazed cheerfully up at me through the glass floor, too pretty for what they represent. It’s this innocent prettiness that made their meaning hit so hard.

The war’s most famous poem
They call to mind the war’s most famous poem, written in 1915 by John McCrae, a Canadian medical officer who later died in France. “In Flanders fields,” it begins, “the poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row …” 

Another shock is the simple fact that this is the only museum in the country devoted solely to World War I. The original memorial was a local idea, and the complex is still a locally run point of civic pride. Congress gave it the “national” designation in 2004.

As soon as the war ended, Kansas City business leaders bought the land — on the crest of a ridge that overlooks downtown — and began planning a tribute and raising funds. The Liberty Memorial was completed in 1926: a 217-foot tower flanked by two stone exhibit halls and a pair of winged lions covering their faces in grief.

A winged lion covering its face in grief
MinnPost photo by Catherine Watson
The Liberty Memorial tower is flanked by two winged lions covering their faces in grief.

“After it was built,” a docent explained, “the Depression came along, and nobody had any money to build any others. Then came World War II.” And when that war ended, its immensity pushed the First World War off America’s mental radar.

“Kansas Citians captured a moment,” museum spokesperson Denise Brendina told me later, and while other military museums broadened their focus, “We never had mission stray.”  

When I toured the museum last month, I got to chatting with another visitor, a woman about my age. We talked about Veterans Day, then only a few weeks off. She didn’t like the holiday’s name.

“I can’t call it that,” she said.  “I wasn’t brought up that way.” To her, this would always be Armistice Day: “You know —  the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.”

I nodded. The coincidence of all those elevens had been stressed in grade school, in every November of my childhood: That was the moment in 1918 when the fighting stopped on Europe’s Western Front. (It took until 1919 to hammer out the final terms.)

But an armistice isn’t the same as a victory. It’s really just a pause — when opposing forces lay down their arms, but nobody really wins. They can always pick those weapons up again — and, of course, they did.

The Kansas City museum takes the position that World War II was “the next phase” of the Great War. My fellow visitor agreed: “The First World War didn’t really end,” she said, “till the [Berlin] Wall came down.” 

Staggering numbers: 36 nations, 65 million soldiers
I’d never looked at it that way. But then, like most Americans, I hadn’t looked closely at the Great War, either, and now I felt ashamed. I did not understand, until this museum told me, that the conflict involved 36 countries around the world and 65 million soldiers.

In 2006, a new, bigger museum was built into the hillside under the memorial tower. The complex is dedicated to keeping the memory of that distant war alive.

(I’d have said “keeping its flame burning,” but technically the light that shines from the top of the memorial tower at night has never been a real flame. It’s a jet of steam with red light shining on it, and it costs $65,000 a year to run. The flame depends on donations to keep it going.)  

Thousands of items are on display now, and every innovation in current museum design is in use: detailed timelines, holographic images; old films and photos; animated maps; letters home; personal talismans, and relics of all sorts, from minuscule to ponderous —  from a Yankee soldier’s safety pin to a French tank with  one side bashed in. 

One of the most shocking exhibits is a life-size — better to call it death-size — reconstruction of a direct hit on a French farmhouse by a 17-inch Howitzer shell. The bomb crater is about 35 feet across and 20 deep, and when you stand at the bottom, it feels like being in a grave.

Life-size reconstruction of a direct hit on a French farmhouse
MinnPost photo by Catherine Watson
At 35 feet across and 20 feet deep, a life-size bomb crater packs an emotional punch for visitors.

Elsewhere, there’s a wall of patriotic posters. Ranks of uniforms. A hospital tent. Original artillery pieces. A 1917 Harley-Davidson motorcycle.  Early aircraft poised overhead. A Missouri mule team. And reconstructions of trenches, where figures of American soldiers struggle forever in the mud of the Western Front.  

Even Gary Cooper’s golden Oscar is here, awarded for his portrayal of Sgt. Alvin York, the war’s most famous American hero. York himself talked Cooper into playing him on screen.

When I finally left the museum, hours after I’d entered, my sense of immersion in the Great War was so strong that I felt cold, as if I were emerging from a damp bunker, somewhere far away from home. It took a long moment before I could absorb the warmth of the sunny Midwestern afternoon outside.

Related: On this Veterans Day, a poem by David Hawley

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by dan buechler on 11/11/2009 - 11:15 am.

    Thank you so much for this article I never knew about this museum. Once again thanks.

  2. Submitted by Annette Caruthers on 11/11/2009 - 11:38 am.

    Great article, and good photos. I never knew about this museum, and this is just the kind of reporting that we seldom get from other mainstream media! Thank you!

  3. Submitted by Bill Gilles on 11/11/2009 - 12:00 pm.

    I took a trip to KC last summer – and this museum is amazing. One of the best in the country. I spent the entire afternoon mesmerized. I need to go back – I spent most of my time on European side of the museum (1914-1917) and hurried through the American side (1917 to Armistice) trying to dodge the docents attempting to close the museum on time.

    I also visited two other newer KC museums – The Negro Leagues and the Jazz museum. I wouldn’t recommend either. I’m not a jazz guy, but the Jazz museum was uninspired – or rather inspired by Barnes and Noble ear phone ‘listening stations’. Very lame.

    I’m not an in-depth scholar of the Negro Leagues, but even my scanty knowledge was enough to know just how much the displays were dumbed down and the opportunities lost. It touched on the basic, and rather run of the mill, discrimination was bad in the first half of the century. But any museum on almost any topic can and does make that point. What’s lost, is how discrimination robbed professional baseball and baseball fans of some of the finest players in the history of the game. Some attempt to really quantify and show what was lost would have been a far more powerful and interesting theme.

  4. Submitted by Paul Linnee on 11/11/2009 - 12:25 pm.

    I too had the pleasure of touring this great WW I museum in Kansas City last summer and agree that it is a gem. I also had a chance to visit the historic WW I battle memorial and other sites in and around Verdun, in France and I would highly recommend it to all. There is one place where the French had a fortress dug in a large rock, which the Germans eventually overtook, and then the French recaptured it later in the war. Within that FRENCH fortress was a memorial to GERMAN soldiers killed in defending its recapture. Also, seeing the trenches (as in “trench warfare”) still in place was striking.

  5. Submitted by Michael Zalar on 11/11/2009 - 12:32 pm.

    Thanks for the article.

    I would like to leave the links to the lyrics couple of songs about WWI by Eric Bogle:

    The Green Fields of France (Willie McBride)
    http://celtic-lyrics.com/forum/?autocom=tclc&code=lyrics&id=225

    And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda:
    http://www.pogues.com/Releases/Lyrics/LPs/RumSodomy/Waltzing.html

  6. Submitted by nick gorski on 11/11/2009 - 04:50 pm.

    I visited the museum last year and it is a stomach and jaw dropper. A bit of clarification is needed. The shrouded, winged figures are Sphinxs.

    And there is a specific meaning to them. From another website,here’s the scoop:: Facing east, Memory, has its wings shielding its face from the horrors of the battlefields of Europe. Future, facing west, has its wings shrouding its face to the symbolic unseen future.

    In checking my memory regarding the meaning of the statues I also found some yammerings from the current crop of alleged deficit hawks bemoaning the fact that any money is being spent to support a museum regarding a war no one cares about any more, after all how many vets from that conflict are there?

    Another person well in need of a dope slap.

  7. Submitted by jim hughes on 11/11/2009 - 08:08 pm.

    Each poppy represents 1,000 lives. How could that not hit you in the gut?

    I’m putting this museum on my must-see list.

  8. Submitted by Francis Ferrell on 11/12/2009 - 01:06 am.

    I have friends[most were vets] who visited this WWI Museum/Memorial and came away stunned to their very core. As a veteran we feel and heed the call to duty to defend and/or fight for the country. But, as war happened throughout history, does anyone ever win. This museum really shakes-up one’s soul.

    Conquerors come and go; ideologies come and disappear; and, nations rise and fall with the passage of time. Through all this vast expanse of knowledge, time, or reason has the prophecies of why wars are fought been concise enough to understand?

    Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, Napoleon, Bradley, and other noted military leaders have intimated that war is a self fulfilling perpetual entity unto itself. Battles, for the moment, may be won by the powerful few and politics may dictate the end results. In the end equation victories and political gains are fleeting in with time and peace seems happenstance or temporary.

    War will erupt anywhere, at anytime, for whatever reason and humankind will be ill-prepared, as usual, to keep or foster peace. Ask any veteran who really and truly wins a war. You will be enlightened by the answers.

  9. Submitted by frank somerville on 03/17/2018 - 09:21 pm.

    national war museum

    I am From england and have been to many war museums both here in england, and in france and belgium and visiting the war cemetrys and three years ago had the honour of attending the american memorial at Ypres and laying a wreath there. (we must never forget). When visiting a dear friend in junction city, She took me to the war museum in kansas city and I must say its one of the best I have Visited. well laid out and really hits you when you go in, great I really enjoyed it.

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