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The Awful War to End All Wars: Now on Display

It was the War to End All Wars, the Great War, the first great military power struggle between the large nations in the world. It was World War One. Yet today, 100 years later, the American public still does not have a deep understanding of the conflict that raged from 1914 until 1918. The Civil War and World War II still certainly resonate and we, and our descendants, will never forget the battle of Gettysburg or D-Day. But the Marne? Ypres? Verdun? Those names from World War One have faded from our collective memory.

There have been numerous commemorative events to mark the centennial of the American entry into the war in 1917 to give Americans a good look at that war. The Minnesota Historical Society came up with an original and pretty effective idea - a mammoth museum exhibit, World War I America. It is not just an exhibit about the war, but about what America was like when it plunged into that dreadful conflict that took the lives of around eight million military personnel and 116, 000 Americans (half of them died from accidents and epidemics, such as the flu). The combination is a winner and not only educates but entertains those who go to see it.

The Minnesota exhibit is touring various large museums across the country. I caught up with it last weekend at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, 428 N. Boulevard, in Richmond, Virginia.

What is different about the Richmond exhibit is that the Virginia Museum of History and Culture there wisely decided to add a second, separate, exhibit of its own about Virginia and World War One, an interesting move because It tells Virginians about their own state’s involvement and changes there over the years.

Museum officials there have done a good job of presenting the exhibit. To get to the much larger, general WWI exhibit, you enter a foyer with sensational silent movie posters from that era adorning the walls, plus a poster for the escape artist Harry Houdini with the posters letters in blue and red. That sets the tone. Then you go left to learn what America was like or right to study the war and its combatants. It is an efficient division of the museum’s show.

Down the left side, featuring American life, you first get an idea of how the American media covered the war, that started in 1914 with the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand. From his death to 1917, the U.S. government gave their European allies $800 trillion dollars (in today’s money), along with eight million pairs of shoes each year. Newspapers splashed stories about the war in Europe from 1914 to 1917 all over their front pages. Then the exhibit moves on to women. Women served a major part in the war, from working as the original Rosie the Riveters to taking on roles in the Naval Coast Defense Reserve as radio operators, clerks, nurses and messengers. They had a special rank, Yeoman (F), for female soldier. This was when women were not yet allowed to vote.

“Rosie the Riveter was very important in World War II but it was as important in World War I,” said Lynn Rainville, author of a book, Virginians in the Great War. “In terms of moving towards equal rights, it was an important step to show women could take over the jobs of men and do this very hard and demanding work.”

Women were also among the thousands of people not in the army who served as volunteers at home. Many worked in war bond drives or hosted pro-war rallies at schools and in theaters. Little kids went door to door to collect pocket change to send to the troops. Movie mega-star Mary Pickford traveled the country giving speeches in theaters to raise money for the war. People celebrated Meatless Mondays and Wheatless Wednesdays.

A notable aspect of the exhibit is its view of America at that time. It was an extremely different country than it is today. Newspapers, not web sites, delivered news to the citizens. Airplanes were in the primitive stage, epidemics, such as the flu, killed thousands of Americans. The U.S. Army was segregated, unlike today, with all black units battling the Kaiser’s men and many of those black soldiers complaining that they were fighting for a democracy that kept them in segregation. The army also had over 500,000 immigrants from 46 countries. They constituted 20% of our fighting men and in some units were a majority of the soldiers.

There is a wonderful section on American life then about the huge migration from the segregated South to northern cities by millions of African Americans. They filled northern cities to the brim. Chicago, as an example, more than doubled the size of its black population during this 1910 to 1920 or so migration. In the North, African Americans felt they could breath. “Here, I feel like I am a man,” said one transplanted worker who moved North with his family. There is a marvelous video connected to the migrant story along with newspaper coverage by the Chicago Defender,the African American newspaper.

The story of political dissidents is told, such as that of Emma Goldman, who was put in prison for two years and then deported to Russia for her views. The story of a lynch mob, one of many that got away with murder, is recounted along with the story of the suffragettes, who fought throughout the war, conducting hunger strikes and serving time in jail. The story of newspaper and magazine censorship is told, as well as the rise of the Communist and anarchist bombings during that period. There is a small exhibit on strikes (4,000 a year in that era) and riots by workers.

America was a much smaller country in 1917, with just 103 million people versus 323 million today. About 90% of Americans were white, versus a total of around 63% today. One third of all Americans were under the age of 15 versus just 20% today, the average pay was 53 cents an hour. Just one third of Americans had a telephone in their house in 1917. Today just about everybody has at least one phone; many have several. There were no computers then, no space satellites, no television. At the start of WWI fancy sports cars sold for $495, men’s Easter suits for $15. You could see a baseball game for a quarter and see a movie for a dime. All of that is reflected in the exhibit.

The military half of the exhibit on the war itself is well put together.

Along with the saga of the sinking of theLusitania, that helped to begin the war, at the start of that section, the story of the ill-fated Zimmerman telegram, in which a German ambassador tried to get Mexico to declare war on America, is related. 

There are a number of neat artifacts, such as a soldier’s French phrase dictionary, a deck chair from theLusitania, soldiers’ uniforms, machine guns, revolvers, bowler hats, a Red Cross jeep, helmets with holes in them from explosions, statues of soldiers placed in dozens of cities in a post war commemorative drive. There are huge story posters of celebrities of the day, from immortal baseball pitcher Christy Matthewson to evangelist preacher Billy Sunday to avid anti-Communist Attorney General A, Mitchell Palmer. There is also a mini-theater in which you can watch silent films of the era. 

There is a huge photo of nurse Alice O’Brien, who insisted on remaining when so many nurses were going home from the war. “There is so much work (yet) to be done,” she told her friends about her decision to stay.

The second exhibit, The Commonwealth and the Great War, is smaller and not as impressive as the general exhibit but it has its moments. You get a nice tribute to President Woodrow Wilson, born in Virginia, who won the Nobel Peace Prize after the war. There are informative biographies of Virginians in the war, a good look at the sad segregation or blacks in the Virginia regiments (the Richmond Planet, an African American newspaper, criticized military segregation), the role of women in Virginia in the war the yeoman work done by employees at Virginia military ports, such as Newport News. The Virginia exhibits emphasizes, too, how the Great War led to the huge growth an expansion of U.S. military bases in Virginia and elsewhere in the U.S. 

A weakness in both exhibits is the lack of a solid corp of information about the war itself. It is overloaded with fascinating material on soldiers’ lives, their training and their departure for and return from the war. What was their life in Europe like, though? What were battles like? Living in those God-forsaken trenches? What was it like to get gassed? To see friends die? The actual battles themselves, on the ground, in the sea and in the air, are not shown with much more than an obligatory nod. There is a good section on the sinking of the Lusitania, where 124 Americans died, but nothing more on the war at sea or elsewhere. There is a short mention of U.S. volunteers in the Lafayette Escadrille air force (39 of them) but little on the American Air Corps within the army. More substance on the war itself might have helped. There are maps of Europe and the front-line locations, but the exhibit needs more.

Oddly enough, my favorite part was the Virginia state exhibit in which popular war songs were played, such as Johnny Get Your Gunand Over There. Listening to that music, you could tap your feet and bounce a bit and leave the exhibit, and a war we never want to see again – not ever.

This is a highly entertaining and informative exhibit that is well worth seeing.

The exhibit will run in Richmond through July 29.