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.
“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.
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.