The Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri may just be the best American war museum you’ve never been to. At this point, the Great War does not occupy the same place in our national consciousness as World War II, although over 116,000 American troops lost their lives in just over one year of fighting. While that’s more than double our death toll from Vietnam, the American losses make up just 2%, yes that’s two percent of the Allies’ total combat force losses during “the war to end all wars.” Yet when was the last time you heard someone mention World War I?
It wasn’t always like this. After the end of the war in November 1918, a nationwide call went out for some sort of memorial to be constructed, and in 1919 a fundraising drive to build a monument raised $2.5 million dollars from private donors (that would be over $31 million today) in just ten days. When the site was dedicated in Kansas City in 1921, all five Supreme Allied Commanders of the victorious Allies came together for the ceremony—the only time all five were ever in the same place. 100,000 people came from around the world to see the groundbreaking—and the memorial wasn’t even built yet! Fast forward to the present day, and the museum has over 80,000 square feet packed with artillery pieces, small arms, ammunition, clothing, medical supplies, propaganda posters, and all sorts of other original relics of the war. Only the aircraft hanging from the ceilings are replicas, everything else is original. Racks of grenades, pistols, rifles, and bayonets flank larger pieces such as a Harley Davidson scout motorcycle in running condition and a Renault tank that still has a gash in the side from the artillery shell that knocked it out.
Half of the museum is dedicated to the course of the war from its beginning until America’s entry in 1917. After a spectacular, and eardrum bursting, widescreen multimedia presentation about the causes of America’s late entry into the conflict, the second half of the museum shows the rest of the war from our perspective. There is more here than you can easily see in one visit—to view a larger collection you’ll need to go to the Imperial War Museum in London, England. Interactive video maps about the massive battles use computer-generated graphics to show moving lines of advance and retreat. Full size trenches show the differences between fighting conditions for German, British, and French soldiers. The trenches are always a hit with kids, but adults wince at the thought of being shelled by artillery while surrounded by walls of cold mud.
A few favorite bits of knowledge I’ve gained from my visits to the Liberty Memorial:
- Right now it’s popular to make fun of the French military for surrendering in World War II. But during the Great War one out of four Frenchmen of military service age were killed in less than four years, yet they never surrendered. Count up your friends and family and imagine one out of four gone, and then see if you are in a hurry to do it all over again a few years later.
- The firing rate of modern artillery was greatly underestimated. At the beginning of the war, stockpiles of ammunition that had taken years to manufacture were used up in weeks. But industry caught up—during the final offensive at the end of the war, American and French troops had an artillery piece for every 8 yards of front, and they rained a quarter of a million rounds on the German positions in just the first day of the assault.
- The passenger ship Lusitania, famously sunk by a German submarine with the loss of nearly 1,200 lives, was in fact carrying weapons from New York to Liverpool on the voyage. How do I know this? The ship’s manifest is on display at the museum, and opened to the page logging the types and quantities of arms stowed aboard.
- An incredibly large painting of the war called the “Pantheon de la Guerre,” which was originally over 400 feet long and took 130 European artists to create, was later cut apart and reinstalled at the Liberty Memorial. It features the portraits of hundreds of important figures from the war, including many Americans. Among them is a shy-looking artillery captain wearing round glasses. Almost 30 years after the painting was finished, Harry S. Truman would be President of the United States.
It has been nearly a century since an assassination in Sarajevo sparked a fire that engulfed the world. But if you care to understand the political problems of today, and the history of how the United States rose to become a major player on the world stage, World War I cannot be ignored. For this reason alone the museum is worth visiting on your next trip to the Midwest, even if you don’t care to see the U-boat torpedo, the British naval deck gun, or the 240mm trench mortar. I guarantee you’ll find something else on display that will capture your imagination!