Remembering the War to End Wars

Posted May 22nd, 2009 at 3:17 pm (UTC-4)
Leave a comment

In 1917 and 1918, many ordinary Americans and most soldiers heading off to fight on the European Continent in World War I crossed the country by rail. And those who passed through Kansas City – once a brawling cowtown on the wide Missouri River that had grown into a brash city of a quarter-million people run by the Pendergast political machine – detrained into a magnificent new, Beaux-Arts terminal, the third-largest in the country.

This is a recent photo of Kansas City’s Union Station and the city skyline, taken from the top of the Liberty Memorial. Closed for awhile, the station again serves Amtrak passengers and is full of shops, restaurants, and a historic museum

Directly across the street to the south, they first beheld a steep rise leading to an ordinary rock outcropping above Penn Valley Park, beyond which automobile enthusiasts had set up a campground at the time. Across Main Street, they saw rows of decrepit buildings and billboards touting cheap bourbon and cigars, moustache waxes, nickel-beer joints and the like.

But that hill in Penn Valley Park would soon be the site of something special, unique in fact, worth a long look on Memorial Day weekend in 2009.

Worth a second look, too, because of what has happened there recently as well.

I should begin with an explanation of Memorial Day, which to the average American, regrettably, has become less a tribute to fallen servicemen and women in America’s wars than the unofficial kickoff to summer and the beach season – another three-day dispensation to eat, drink, relax, shop, and make merry.

Girl Scouts salute at a Memorial Day gathering in Gallipolis, Ohio, in 1943

As you’ll read later, the holiday traces to tributes to the fallen that began in the somber days that followed America’s bloody Civil War almost a century and a half ago. Interest in the tradition surged again half a century later during the conflict that the world idyllically called “The Great War” – four years of carnage now barely remembered and rarely commemorated.

German troops get a break in their trench near St. Michel, France, about 1915

It was the same war to which American “doughboys,” pausing at Kansas City’s Union Station, were heading in 1917 and 1918. A war of barbed wire and mustard gassings, hand-to-hand combat and tank attacks in the stagnant trenches and deadly “no-man’s lands” of Western Europe. This was to be the War to End All Wars but instead spawned the conditions for a deadlier spate of conquest, destruction and death two decades later.

Kansas Citians were front and center when it came to supporting war-bond drives during the Great War

Patriotic fervor for the Great War effort swept the Kansas Cities – for there are two separate and distinct ones: the larger, citified hub in Missouri and a smaller satellite city across the Missouri River in Kansas. Kansas Citians, who lost 441 of their neighbors in the European fighting, gave bountifully to war-bond drives and remained in a thankful mood when an armistice was declared at 11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.

The following year, in a span of just 10 days, even more remarkably while an influenza epidemic was sweeping the city, 83,000 contributors – about one in every four persons in town – kicked in $2.5 million for an amazing tribute to the nation’s war dead. That’s about $30 million in 2009 dollars.

The fund drive’s slogan: “Lest the Ages Forget.”

Kansas City outdid itself with its Liberty Memorial, which towered over any other structure in town

With the money, the city demolished a few houses and mangy trees up the hill in Penn Valley Park and erected Liberty Memorial, a 66-meter (216-foot)-high limestone shaft that dominates the city’s southern skyline to this day. Designed in the Egyptian Revival style by New York architect H. Van Buren Magonigle, who won the commission following a nationwide competition, the memorial features four stone guardian spirits – representing courage, patriotism, sacrifice, and honor – sculpted by Robert Aitken. (He is even better known for his “Equal Justice Under the Law” pediment above the entrance to the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington.)

And the great tower is further protected at its base by two giant stone sphinxes. One, facing Europe, is shielding its eyes from the horrors of war. The other, facing the opposite direction, also hides its eyes, but from the unknown future. Given the events that followed World War I, apparently it knew something that the world did not.

These are models of Robert Aitken’s guardian spirits that appear facing each direction of the compass at the top of the Liberty Memorial

Among Kansas City folk, the memorial is most appealing at night, when a series of pipes carries steam from a subterranean boiler up the tower and past a series of yellow and red lights. The long-range effect is that of a flame rising into the sky, and it takes $65,000 to pay the utility company to produce it. That’s why there is now a “Save the Flame” campaign for financial support to keep the steam rising.

The tower is fully accessible, by the way. An elevator whisks visitors to a floor near the top; 45 steps later, they are standing on an observation platform, gasping at one of the most spectacular skyline views in North America. There’s no fear of scalding from the steam! It doesn’t start spouting until dark, after closing time.

This is Washington State’s inspiring, but modest in scope, World War I monument outside the capitol in Olympia

The Liberty Memorial is not America’s only monument to those who fought and died in World War I, but it is the most prominent. Many of the nation’s cavernous old “memorial stadiums,” including Soldier Field in Chicago, were named in tribute to service in the Great War, a fact that likely escapes most modern-day sports fans.

The intent and scope of Kansas City’s memorial, however, were unmistakable. Architect Edward Durrell Stone, who designed Washington’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and other acclaimed buildings, called the Liberty Memorial “one of the country’s great memorials, in a class with the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials.”

Just look at the throng that turned out for the Liberty Memorial dedication in 1921!

A crowd approaching 200,000 people, including American Expeditionary Forces commander John J. “Black Jack” Pershing and military leaders from four other Allied nations, packed the grounds for the groundbreaking ceremony in 1921. And a like number returned to hear President Calvin Coolidge speak at its dedication five years later.

Today, in the words of writer Michael Braude of the Kansas City Business Journal, the Liberty Memorial “stands as a proud symbol of human dignity and the love of liberty for all.”

Kansas City’s devotion to preserving the memory of the First World War was all the more impressive to Carol and me because we have visited, and she has photographed, so many magnificent war memorials here in Washington and elsewhere. Indeed, visitors to Washington’s National Mall will find spectacular and moving monuments to the fallen of World War II, the Vietnam War, and the Korean War; and the city is replete with stone and brass tributes to Civil War heroes and battles.

Bright sunshine and a pretty snowfall spruce up the drab World War I Memorial in Washington, D.C., built in 1931 as a bandstand

But the only nod to World War I hereabouts is a small District of Columbia Doric temple, dedicated in 1931 and now nearly hidden in the trees of West Potomac Park. The monument’s peristyle, or ring of columns, encircles what was designed as a bandstand, not that very many people know there were concerts there or, indeed, even know there’s a World War I monument in town at all.

The neglect of this once-handsome structure “is due in part to the fact that its history had been forgotten by most, both by the federal government and local D.C. citizens” according to The National Coalition to Save the Mall preservationist organization. “The memorial has no signage or explanation except for that carved in the white marble. Part of the problem was that until recently, it seemed unclear who was responsible for maintaining the structure . . . . The [National Park Service] felt it had responsibility for the grounds, but not the structure.” Only after a park service cultural resource specialist examined early records was it determined that the nearly hidden memorial is that agency’s responsibility.

‘Over There’ Over Here!

Neglect of World War I and its everyday heroes is certainly not the case in Kansas City, where, you’ll remember (won’t you?) that I mentioned that something else quite special has happened on that hill above Union Station.

Directly below the Liberty Memorial, in fact.

That soaring memorial was built upon a flat stone deck, next to two small, bunker-like buildings. One became a meeting place, and the other a sort of “relic room,” crammed with World War I souvenirs that soldiers and their families had sent in.

This shot by Carol gives you a good look at the Liberty Memorial, the supporting platform, the two sphinxes, and the old buildings that once housed Great War artifacts

Over the decades, the mementos kept coming and coming as Great War veterans died, to the point that Kansas City found itself holding the nation’s largest Great War collection. Too much stuff, and much of it too enormous, to fit into a single, drab room. Meantime, stonework on the tower’s support deck deteriorated to such an unsafe level that the platform had to be fenced off in the 1990s.

What had been a Kansas City treasure became an eyesore once again.

Repairs were urgently needed, but, true to its gung-ho spirit, Kansas City did not stop there. Citizens approved a sales-tax increase that raised $106 million to fix the memorial and build an entirely new, dramatic museum underneath it.

A lovely reflecting pond, out of sight from a distance, graces the below-ground entrance to the National World War I Museum

So impressive was the result, designed by Ralph Applebaum, who also drew the plans for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, that Congress designated it as The National World War I Museum. Yet its opening in December 2006 came as a surprise to many Kansas Citians, since it’s only when you’re upon it that you realize there’s something deep in the hillside, hidden down a long ramp beneath the great memorial.

Inside, its story begins with two movies, one an orientation and one that explains why the United States was drawn, most reluctantly, into the European conflict. After all, President Woodrow Wilson had been re-elected in 1916 on the slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War.”

The museum offers several timelines to help modern-day visitors grasp the increasingly horrifying events of almost a century ago

Exhibits trace the story from the war’s precipitating event – the assassination of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 in Sarajevo, the capital of Boznia-Herzogovena – through the early years of the conflict among European Great Powers, to the impact of U.S. involvement, beginning in 1917, at home and abroad.

These are sort of “living exhibits” at the museum – volunteers dressed in 1915 German and French infantry uniforms, respectively

There is a host of other things to learn beneath the Liberty Memorial as well. A haunting factoid, for instance: One of three Frenchmen ages 18 to 30 died on battlefields of World War I.

Poignant quotes, too, greet many a step through the exhibits. Here’s just one, from Ernst Bergner, a German infantryman:

The Western Front was a living hell of artillery barrages, machine gun bullets, and sniper fire. Quiet sectors existed, however, where units on both sides, either through exhaustion, poor leadership, or apathy, tried to avoid conflict. ‘Live and let live,’ a phrase coined by a British war correspondent, took a variety of forms. Troops in the frontlines would sometimes refrain from firing at mealtime or on holidays. . . . Night patrols would spot each other in no-man’s land and quietly move away to avoid an encounter. Commanders detested ‘live and let live’ and took various measures to stamp it out.

Now it is Christmas time for the second time in this war. Along the front line all is quiet, only some rifle bullets are crossing the air like lashes. It is three o’clock in the afternoon. I have to look for a Christmas tree. Without a tree, there is no Christmas.

This flag, displayed at the museum, flew over the U.S. Capitol on the day of the nation’s declaration of war against Germany, on April 2, 1917

The opening of the nation’s new World War I museum fueled thousands more donations – 3,200 in the first 29 months alone. “One person gave us his entire hand-grenade collection that he had been amassing his entire life,” museum vice president Denise Rendina told me. One specimen is a British rifle-fired grenade with a cloth “ballerina skirt” that helped guide it aerodynamically. Another gift, Rendina says, “was pieces of fabric that people had put inside cigar boxes, denoting flags from all the nations participating in the war. Someone had taken those and quilted them, and they had been in their family for generations, and they just gave them to us. Both are examples of the personal way in which people experienced the war.”

At some point, museum officials must tell veterans and their families, discreetly, that they have reached a limit on certain kinds of gifts. Rendina wouldn’t specify, but I’m guessing it has all the helmets and buttons, belt buckles and certain uniform patches that it can handle, lest this sweeping museum turn into a crowded “relic room” once again.

This is the “good side” of the prized, French-made tank – the side that’s still intact and doesn’t have a gaping shrapnel hole

The National World War I Museum does occasionally purchase an item, such as its one-of-a-kind, two-man, camouflage-painted Renault FT-17 tank – notable for the huge shrapnel hole on one of its sides. And it didn’t come cheap. The museum paid a collector in Montana a quarter of a million dollars for it.

In just over two years, more than 300,000 visitors, including about 35,000 school kids, have toured the museum. “A lot of them knew next to nothing about the Great War,” Denise Rendina says. “I see people moved to silence, because of the horror of this and all wars, and because of conflicts around us right now.”

This is Frank Buckles next to an ambulance inside the museum a year ago. We should all look so good at 107!

One visitor who arrived by special invitation last Memorial Day.: Frank Buckles, now 108 years old, is the last known living American veteran of the War to End All Wars. Buckles enlisted at 16 – lying about his age– and drove ambulances and motorcycles in the conflict.

Entirely cognizant, he remarked approvingly about the museum’s collection. There was little time to dwell on most of the 52,000 objects, but he was impressed with the re-creations, stretching into several rooms, of the crowded and shell-pocked trenches in which so many of his comrades lived, and lost, their lives 90 years ago.

Naturally, Buckles liked the museum’s ambulance and motorcycles, too.

More About Memorial Day

There are varying explanations as to the origins of Memorial Day, which used to be celebrated in the United States every May 30th. Since 1971, the holiday has been observed on the last Monday in May, whether or not it falls on the 30th, in order to create a three-day holiday weekend. This year, it falls on Monday, May 25th.

The main federal observance of Memorial Day is held at Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. The president or his designate places a wreath of flowers at the Tomb of the Unknowns, honoring all of the men and women who have died in America’s wars. There’s a celebrity-studded Memorial Weekend concert, too, and a Memorial Day parade, featuring patriotic floats and helium-filled balloons, up Constitution Avenue.

The Grand Army of the Republic, a unit of which is seen here parading up Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue in 1865, was enormously influential

It’s generally accepted that Memorial Day dates to just after the Civil War, which ended in 1865. According to one of many versions, the tradition was established when the people of Waterloo, New York, gathered at the local cemetery the following year and placed flowers on the graves of local men killed in the Civil War. Later, the Grand Army of the Republic – or G.A.R – an organization of northern veterans, endorsed ceremonies that honored the dead and suggested that its members take up the practice. In 1868, General John Logan, a former Union army general who commanded the G.A.R, designated May 30th as the day to decorate graves.

Indeed, the holiday was long called “Decoration Day.” Even before the Civil War had concluded, women’s groups in the South were laying flowers below their loved ones’ tombstones, and an 1867 hymn, “Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping,” carried the dedication “To The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead.”

This was actually an Independence Day parade in my current hometown of Takoma Park, Maryland, in 1922. Decoration Day festivities had the same corny trappings

Eighty years later, as a child far to the north in Cleveland, I was festooning my bike or my wagon with crepe paper streamers for the neighborhood Decoration Day parade.

As I mentioned earlier, following World War I Congress set aside May 30th as a day to honor the dead from all American wars. That was the war in which a Canadian field artillery surgeon, John McCrea, wrote the moving poem “Flanders Fields” at a burial ground near Ypres, France. It reads, in part:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Two days before the armistice quieted the fighting, Moina Michael of Athens, Georgia, a Civil War veteran’s daughter working at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries’ office in New York, got an idea. She had long treasured the last line of McCrea’s poem – we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders Fields – and when she saw the poem once again, she sat down and wrote a short verse of her own:

We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.
A member of a Veterans of Foreign Wars delegation pins a poppy on the lapel of President Calvin Coolidge in 1924

Moina Michael vowed to wear a red poppy in memory of Flanders Field each remaining day of her life, and the idea of marking Decoration Day with the sale and display of red, paper poppies soon spread among the former Allied nations. In Britain, Australia, and Canada, the poppies appear on Armistice Day in November. Less so, any more, on November 11 in the United States, where the holiday has been broadened into “Veterans’ Day.”

On the days that I was whizzing down Winton Avenue on my dolled-up bike each Decoration Day, nearly all the cheering adults along the way proudly wore red poppies. Now, as my cynical friend and colleague Art Chimes points out, a poppy in one’s lapel might be viewed suspiciously as some sort of homage to the opium trade.

This is the poppy field at the National World War I Museum

Poppies have their day at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City as well. Just inside the door, one crosses a glass bridge over an entire field of red, paper ones – 9,000 of them: each representing 1,000 combat fatalities. No doubt only a few of the older folks who visit, and perhaps some history-savvy students, know why poppies were chosen to tell this story.

Looking Sharp

Everything really is, as the song goes, “up to date in Kansas City.” Carol and I couldn’t believe the difference between this vibrant, clean, architecturally exciting city and another U.S. city of almost identical (475,000) population: my tired, sad-looking hometown of Cleveland, which, you may recall, we had visited a few weeks earlier.

How’s this for funky? It’s one of several giant badminton shuttlecock sculptures outside K.C.’s dynamic Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza district, with its Spanish-inspired architecture, brims with activity – shopping and dining, mostly – day and night. Besides the remarkable World War I museum, one can find delights like the American Jazz Museum and Negro Leagues baseball museum, plus the astounding new Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, whose eerily illuminated façade shimmers at night. I can’t rave too conspicuously, though, about “K.C.’s” famous barbecue, having waxed so lavishly about the barbecue that they cook up in North Carolina, half a continent away. (But the heartland variety is pretty good.)

Refreshing, eh? Through this fountain spray, you get a glimpse of a tower in Kansas City’s genteel Plaza shopping district

One delight from our Kansas City visit wasn’t exactly up to date, since most of the city’s 200 or so fountains – more than anywhere outside Rome, it’s said – go back a ways. The first, built for the locals’ horses and dogs and for wild birds, was erected in 1899. And I learned something about the early fountains: the reason one sees water flowing from nymph and lion and fish figures high above the fountains’ pools was a sanitary one. Animals drank from the reservoir; humans could dip their hands or cups into fresh, clean water streaming from those figures before it fell to the fountain’s floor below.

Today, there’s an unwritten policy in town that a fountain be incorporated into the design of every significant new public or commercial building project.

In fact, one might say that Kansas City is a “font” of such good ideas.

Please leave a comment.


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Doughboys. American infantrymen in World War I. There is debate about the origin of the term. One theory ascribes it to the doughy white clay that soldiers used to clean their white belts. Another states that it was other Allies’ derogatory term for U.S. forces, who were said to be “soft” for showing up late to the war. The term had been used (sparingly) in other conflicts and may also have had its origin in cavalrymen’s contempt for ordinary foot soldiers.

Mangy. Worn or threadbare. The word is often applied to a pitiful animal’s coat, or to a carpet or bedspread.

Sphinx. In ancient Egypt, a sphinx was a tactile representation of a sun god, often in a lion’s shape and wearing a headdress of the pharaohs.

Share and Enjoy:

co.mments digg Furl Ma.gnolia NewsVine Reddit

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


May 2009
« Apr   Jun »