Ground warfare exhibits at the museum can be grouped into ground warfare simulations, uniforms, and equipment. There are three large ground combat simulations which is the focus of this post.
The first simulation is of an active trench. The visitor is placed “at ground level” in the simulated trench. A careful observer will note that the trench is deeper than the height of even a tall man and that to see or fire outside the trench you must gain height by mounting a “firing step.” There is no audio component of the trench warfare, which compares unfavorably to a similar exhibit in the Imperial War Museum in London. The trench does not also convey the rats, the smell of fired weapons, or the stench of decaying bodies and human waste. Still, it allows the observant visitor to gain a visual perspective of trench warfare.
The second simulation places the visitor high above ground looking at a segment behind the front leading away from the front-line trenches. You see a handful of men walking across planks stretched over the mud and water. There is broken equipment on the ground and the shadows of the soldiers is projected high above them. There is a long program loop with pictures and film clips playing on the wall over this area. The program runs for 15-20 minutes (I forget exactly how long) focusing on the USA involvement in the war. After the program concludes the sky darkens and you look down on the static parts of the exhibit pictured in this post. There is seating in this area and patrons are free to walk into and out of the looped program at any time.
The third exhibit was quite realistic and frightening. You are at the bottom of a very deep hole caused by the explosion of a large artillery shell. It is very deep. Anyone familiar with WW1 will understand why there are so many “missing” among the casualties. If you were unlucky enough to be on the lines where the shell exploded there would be nothing left to identify. Pure random bad luck will kill you if you are a skilled or an incompetent soldier.
The Western Front was largely static for much of World War 1. Huge amounts of artillery fired on enemy positions. Firing was largely limited by the stock of shells on hand. If you have played Strategic Command: WW1 you get a gut understanding on the strategic level how shell shortages limited your chances of success in an attack. The deep shell hole facing you makes you realize at a gut level what the pounding of huge guns on largely static positions can mean for the poor doughboy.
A small exhibit showed combat damage to Reims Cathedral in France. The devastation of civilian structures in Europe in WW2 dwarfs that of WW1. But ground combat did destroy a huge number of civilian homes, farms, businesses and historical treasures. The fragment from Reims Cathedral reminds us of this loss.
By 1917 Germany’s Air and Naval power had diminished from their high points. The US Navy engaged in combat in the Atlantic against German submarines. After the USA declared war on April 6, 1917 the US Coast Guard automatically became part of the Navy Department which is an interesting historical tidbit. Two US Navy ships were lost due to enemy action. Six USA flagged merchant ships were destroyed during the USAs involvement in WW1.
Although the US Army Air Service made up perhaps 17% of aircraft in action at the end of the war, Germany’s air force was a fraction of the strength they had earlier in the war. The USA lost 235 airmen killed in action.
The National WW1 Museum gives only minor coverage of the naval and air aspects of WW1. This is a reasonable choice for a museum focused on the US war effort. Both US troop involvement and US casualties were predominantly from ground combat. I’m not quibbling about the lack of coverage of US Naval and Air combat in WW1. Given the realities of that conflict, I agree with the choices made by the museum directors. Still, if your primary interest in WW1 combat is on either on the Navy or the Army Air Corps, you might want to give the National WW1 Museum a pass. The WW1 Aviation display at the Smithsonian Air Museum at Dulles near Washington, DC is much better than the display in Kansas City.