by Libby Sternberg
For the past several years, hubs and I have tried to solve a puzzle: What started World War I?
I know, I know, Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated and then…stuff happened. But, what precisely was the “stuff” and in what order? It wasn’t as if the archduke was felled and the whole of Europe ran to grab their rifles from the attic like some Keystone Kops crowd swarming the scene.
What we’ve been trying to pin down are all the intervening steps from royal assassination to worldwide conflict. We know the assassination was the first domino to fall. What were the others?
So we’ve been reading books and even watched a rather grim documentary series on the subject of the war that we rented from Netflix. Still, our view is murky. Which is probably because the whole business was murky. People are still writing books about it, after all.
When we were in Kansas this past June, we took the time to go visit the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, MO. If you are ever in that neck of the woods, do not hesitate, go visit this museum. It was one of the best museums I’ve ever been in, and I’ve been in most of the Smithsonians in DC. A Kansas friend of mine recommended it, and I’m very grateful.
What makes this museum so great is that whoever put it together seemed to understand how to keep you interested and how to actually provide information. I tend to be a gobble-it-all-up excited museum-goer. I want to just race through them, looking at this, grabbing that view and then decompressing before I re-view exhibits. Maybe I have an attention deficit problem. I dunno. Those were diagnosed after I was a young’un.
The World War I Museum allows you to sample or to amble. You can look and read and move on. You can linger. Either way, you’re going to get the picture.
The whole experience starts when you walk over a transparent “bridge,” below which is a field of bright red poppies, into the dimmer cavelike structure of the museum. It’s as if you’re walking into a bunker, a trench.
Wall displays give you a timeline–at last, the falling dominoes are made clear–for each year of the war. But at the bottom of each dreary list of battle bullet points there are other facts–things that were going on outside the war, video clips of Chaplin films, other notable events. This gives you context as you nod your head to events you’re familiar with, now seeing them happening against the backdrop of the war.
Listening booths let you sample songs and poetry of the era. Listening to Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et decorum est” after seeing the various exhibits is a sobering experience.
But, speaking of poetry and the written arts in general, World War I supplies inspiration for many a story. Pat Barker’s trilogy is set during this time. Regeneration, from that trilogy, is a haunting tale that includes the ill-fated Owen as a character. The popular television series Downton Abbey included a season in which the war played a pivotal role. And recently Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End was dramatized on film.
In commercial fiction, the aftermath of the Great War is captured in the popular Maisie Dobbs mystery series, written by Jacqueline Winspear. Maisie is a private detective and adroit in psychological arts. She is deeply affected by the war, having served as a nurse to the wounded and losing her beloved to shell-shock.
For those who are fans of this series, let me make a recommendation: the biography of Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth. Brittain is very similar to Maisie (so much so that some astute mystery readers wonder if Brittain is Winspear’s inspiration). As a girl, she yearns to know things, to learn. She goes to university and becomes a nurse when the conflict starts. She has a beloved, too, who meets a sad end. And even though you know his fate when you begin the book, it cuts you to the core when you learn of his battlefield death through Brittain’s words. She suffers other losses, too, and by the tale’s end, you’ve experienced with her the complete devastation of this war to end all wars.
“For me, as for all the world, the War was a tragedy and a vast stupidity, a waste of youth and of time; it betrayed my faith, mocked my love, and irremediably spoilt my career.”
She became a pacifist and did find another love, whom she married. But World War I left deep scars that never really healed.
Armistice Day will soon be upon us. On the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” in 1918, the “war to end all wars” ended. Alas, as we all now know, it wasn’t really the end, but merely a tamping down of embers that would burst into flame a little more than 20 years later.
Libby Sternberg is a novelist.