$100 million is a lot of money.
Such was the sum raised by private donations in the mid-2000s that turned the National World War I Memorial and Museum in Kansas City, Mo., originally dedicated in 1926, from a stolid memorial with a tower and two modest galleries into a 32,000 square foot multimedia extravaganza that overwhelms the senses and sears the soul.
The rifles and side arms, howitzers and field mortars, artillery shells, and even airplanes are present in abundance, but so are the songs, the speeches, and the stories of the common and famous alike, from all nations. Young British officer Robert Graves later earned worldwide acclaim as a novelist—here in red letters on a wall panel with a photo of weary front line troops is a quote from his memoir Goodbye to All That: “I only once refrained from shooting a German…. While sniping from a knoll… I saw him taking a bath in the German third line. I disliked the idea of shooting a naked man, so I handed the rifle to the sergeant with me…. He got him, but I had not stayed to watch.”
For most of us today, World War I was the war of a great grandfather or great-great uncle-- The last surviving American veteran of the “war to end all wars,” Frank Buckles, who lied about his age to enlist in the Army at age 16 and volunteered to drive ambulances after being told it was the quickest way to get to the front, died in 2011.
Buckles was the last living American Soldier to have witnessed the incomprehensible carnage wrought by a dizzying litany of alliances, counter-alliances, realpolitik power plays and miscalculations. As fate would have it, he survived a grim side of the next World War, too: a middle-aged Buckles was captured as an American civilian worker in the Philippines at the dawn of World War II and spent over two years interned by the Imperial Japanese Army.
World War I lasted over four years, and saw nearly 70,000,000 troops from 15 nations and empires mobilized by land, sea, and air. By the close of hostilities in 1918, more than 9,000,000 were dead, and another 20,000,000 had been wounded. Nearly 8,000,000 were declared missing in action. The civilian death toll exceeded 7,000,000. The horrific melee was triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in June 1914. At the World War I Memorial, a 1910 9mm Browning pistol of the same model used in the crime is the first artifact on display, in a low alcove where an adult of average height has to kneel to get a close look: every other artifact and interpretive sign-- displayed on the floor, in wall cases, suspended from the ceiling, and under glass in the floors—stems from this easily-concealed handgun.
Regardless of the nation and motives for fighting, in 1914 the leaders were confident a swift victory was at hand. British newspapers assured the troops they would be home by Christmas. Kaiser Wilhelm declaimed that the German Empire would defeat France and its allies inside of six weeks.
The reality, however, was far less neat. The conflict quickly stalemated into brutal trench warfare that no combination of modern weaponry could break. By the end of May 1915, chlorine gas choked the muddy trenches of Ypres, and British civilians were being bombed by intermittent German air raids. Yet in the United States, life proceeded normally. Eddie Rickenbacker, destined to become the United States’ top flying ace by the end of the war, was racing to a top 20 finish in that year’s Indianapolis 500. In rural Tennessee, Sunday school teacher Alvin York, ultimately one of the most highly decorated American Soldiers of the war, was several months into a religious conversion that had led him to give up alcohol and gambling and foreswear violence in any form. At this time, he had never been more than 50 miles away from his birthplace.
By the time the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, France was devastated. 35,000 miles of trenches crisscrossed the obliterated and denuded Western Front. A third of the French male population between the ages of 18 and 30 had died in uniform. There was no certainty that France and Belgium could be saved: in fact, the highest councils of the German government did not anticipate the appearance of fresh American troops would make a noticeable difference in the war. “American entrance is nothing,” opined the German war council, citing the nation’s small military and supposed lack of popular support of a fight. Further, the German government assumed their submarine fleet could easily torpedo any ships that brought American troops toward Europe.
Their assessment was wrong. The United States military drafted nearly three million men into service in 1917, with another 500,000 to 1,000,000 new civilian employees providing support. A massive public relations campaign encouraged Americans to economize their food and material consumption and buy war bonds to finance the war. By the spring of 1918, 10,000 new American troops were arriving in France per day. At Cantigny, Chateau-Thierry, and Belleau Wood the Americans and Allied Forces turned the tide against German attacks, and American participation in the Hundred Days Offensive decisively broke the German populace’s will to fight. An armistice was signed at 11:00 a.m. on November 11, 1918.