World War I Memorial and Museum - A Reminder Of American Values
$100 million is a lot of money.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Furthermore, the German government assumed their submarine fleet could easily torpedo any ships that brought American troops toward Europe.
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.
Historians will debate for the rest of our collective lifetimes whether or not a war prosecuted to total German defeat could have prevented the even-more devastating Second World War.
Yet, American participation in the conflict marked the beginning of the nation as a global superpower, and, after decades, a world where the kind of grave mistakes of 1914 were less likely.
To visit the museum and reflect on the United States’ great privilege and responsibility, won with the sacrifice and blood of Soldiers past ... is particularly moving.