The Great War, fought between 1914 and 1918, changed the world. Also known as World War I, the global conflict went down as one of history’s deadliest. Families and communities of the nine million soldiers and seven million civilians who died in war zones in Europe felt the greatest impact. In raging battles that many nations thought would be the war to end all wars, cultures, lands, cities, and families were devastated. Although an ocean separated the United States from the European countries ravaged by exploding shells, the American way of life changed, even before the United States became one of the Allied Nations.
All that fighting happened more than two decades before I was born. How could a war fought “…over there,” in the mind of most Americans at that time, affect me—or my family? Until I visited the World War I Museum in Kansas City, my only link to World War I was a story repeated in my family. My grandmother’s brother Larkin Johnson, a young, single male with no dependents, had signed a draft card. He was supposed to report for duty in the U.S. Army on November 4, 1918. But Larkin died of influenza on the night of November 3. Administrators in the office that processed draftees for our Arkansas county did not believe the report of his death. At the museum, I noted that firing on the Western Front ended on November 11, 1918. The Germans signed an armistice with the Allied Nations that virtually stood as a surrender. Six months passed before the Treaty of Versailles officially ended the war. If Larkin Johnson had lived, he likely would not have been deployed to France. But I will never know.
The history documented in the Kansas City museum stretches beyond my family’s story. Major political changes, even revolutions, happened in many of the nations involved in the war. Citizens of the United States had viewed the war as conflicts a world away. Yet, many prospered by manufacturing war materials. Jobs Americans had never known were created. Women, who had never worked outside their homes or farms, went into every kind of factory devoted to the production of ammunition, aircraft, and other items needed for combat.
However, war horrors came to our doorsteps when American soldiers fell in beside Allies in 1917. Many had their first taste of military life. Processing was quick. A merciless doctor gave each new soldier a typhoid shot and proclaimed him enlisted. The American Army, small and ill-equipped, sometimes trained with wooden rifles. They wore uniforms left over from the Spanish American War fought in 1898. Recruits lived in hastily built barracks where 800 British and French combat veterans came to train United States soldiers, teaching them to keep their heads down when crawling under barbed wire and how to thrust a bayonet into straw-filled dummies labeled “Fritz.” The young soldiers learned they had seven seconds to put on a gas mask.
American soldiers arrived on decimated battlegrounds in Belgium and France, defined by narrow ditches reeking with stinking mud, decay, and death. The fighting that went on for years turned trenches into trash dumps filled with soiled bandages, broken ammunition boxes, empty cartridges, shattered helmets, bone fragments—and the ever deepening mud. The poet John Masafield called the trenches stretching across the two countries, “…the long grave already dug.” The 400 trenches were a tragic resting place for millions of soldiers.
Soon after World War I ended, Kansas City leaders formed the Liberty Memorial Association (LMA) to create a lasting monument to the men and women who had served. In 1919, the LMA and citizens of Kansas City raised more than $2.5 million (approximately $34 million in today’s currency) in 10 days. Their goal indicated the public sentiment for the Great War that had dramatically changed the world. In 1920, the Liberty Memorial Museum began collecting objects and documents from all nations involved in the First World War.
In 1921, more than 100,000 people gathered to see the supreme Allied commanders dedicate the site of Liberty Memorial. This was the first time in history those five leaders were together in one place. Construction on the classical Egyptian Revival-style Monument was completed in 1926 and the Liberty Memorial was dedicated by President Calvin Coolidge in front of more than 150,000 people.
Nearly 100 years later, the museum, now known as the National World War I Museum, is home to one of the largest Great War collections in the world totaling more than 75,000 items. While it is the official World War I Museum of the United States, the state-of-the-art facility uses its collection to tell more than the American story. Exhibitions take a comprehensive look at the entire war, from the first shots fired in 1914 to the last attempts at peace in 1919. All belligerent nations involved are represented, not only with stories from the battlefield, but from their home fronts, as well. Items in the collection range from simple objects a soldier carried in the field to rare treasures of national significance. A film in Horizon Theater explains the events that led to America entering the war. A “No Man’s Land” is replicated in the theater, incorporating a British patrol across a barren landscape littered with authentic objects.
Under a glass walkway inside the Museum, nine thousand poppies appear to sprout from poor soil in a random pattern. The display honoring the nine million dead represents a thousand combatant deaths for each red flower. John McCrae, a noted Canadian physician before the war, served as a lieutenant colonel at a field hospital in Belgium. His sighting of red poppies blooming across desolate battlefields and fresh graves inspired him to write the poem, “In Flanders Field.” After the war, handmade poppies were sold to raise money for disabled veterans. Poppies continue as a remembrance of those who served and died in uniform. The National World War I Museum created the exhibit to symbolize the war’s great loss of life.
World War II is my only reference point for relating to World War I. When I read in the museum that on November 11, 1918, firing ended on the Western Front and people in the Allied cities—which included American towns and cities—poured into the streets to celebrate, I could only relate to the end of World War II. Although only six years old, I remember standing on the driveway of my dad’s Sinclair Service Station in Heber Springs on May 6, 1945. I recall throngs of people waving hands and hugging each other. I remember the jubilation, and the voices of happy and relieved Americans.
I asked in the beginning how a war an ocean away from the United States—a war fought before I was even born—affected me or my family. In a recent column by Arkansas historian, Tom Dillard, I read: One of the important outcomes of World War I was a realization that many Arkansas draftees were in terrible medical condition. Almost one-half of the Arkansans drafted during the war failed the physical examinations, with many cases of malnourishment, infection with tape worms and other parasites, and high rates of venereal disease. The war helped convince Arkansas authorities to undertake meaningful public health efforts.
I imagine Arkansas was not too different from other states with poor living standards. Ancestors, like my great uncle, Larkin Johnson, and other draftees, made a difference in the health of their descendents across our nation. What a drastic measure—a World War—to highlight the health needs of a nation!
However, health issues were not the only thing that came out of the terrible conflict. Old hatreds, stirred by years of fighting and the wartime propaganda fed to German citizens, created an unstable environment for lasting peace. Unrest continued in Europe. By 1939, World War II was declared and eventually fought on the European continent, as well as on the Pacific Front. The official date of the end of the war is not universally accepted. The generally accepted date—at least for Americans—is August 14, 1945. The formal surrender of Japan occurred on September 2, 1945. The August date matches my memory as a six-year-old. I recall the celebration on a summer evening.Research Campgrounds, Plan RV Safe Routes & Turn your phone into an RV GPS.
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Traveling in their motorhome several months each year, Arline and her photographer husband, Lee Smith, make their permanent home in Heber Springs, Arkansas. She currently is a presenter for Workamper Rendezvous, sponsored by Workamper News. Arline has dozens of magazine articles published, as well as five books: “Road Work: The Ultimate RVing Adventure” (now available on Kindle); “Road Work II: The RVer’s Ultimate Income Resource Guide”; “Truly Zula; When Heads & Hearts Collide”; and “The Heart of Branson”, a history of the families who started the entertainment town and those who sustain it today. Visit Arline’s personal blog at ArlineChandler.Blogspot.com