Matthew Naylor of Kansas City is president and CEO of the National World War I Museum, TheWorldWar.org. To commemorate the start of the Great War, which was sparked by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand 100 years ago, the museum is inviting the city to come hear a bugler play taps at sunset every evening from June 22 to 28 at Liberty Memorial. And on June 28, the day the archduke was killed, the museum will be host to speakers, and the Kansas City Symphony will play period music. This conversation took place at the museum.
Why did the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire, matter so much?
There was a tinderbox already in Europe because of shifting alliances. The beginnings of globalization and people’s ability to travel caused an awareness of cultural differences and a subsequent rise in nationalism. So when the archduke and his wife, Sophie, were murdered, it set off a whole domino effect of declarations of war. By six weeks later it was a global conflict.
How global was the war really? People think of World War I as a European war.
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Because of colonies, it swept to every continent. In Australia, for example, about 40 percent of the male population age 18 to 44 enlisted or were conscripted. Of those, 65 percent were killed or severely injured. The long-term consequences of that were enormous.
Many, many nations had that experience. In India, 1.8 million Indian troops served. Islands in distant seas that were part of the French Empire found themselves drawn in. Because there were German colonies in Africa, countries there were handed over to different colonial powers after the war, which had profound impacts on history.
Everybody known to have fought in World War I has died. Why is it important to remember that war?
Joseph Wittreich wrote, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” If we don’t understand how it happened the first time, we could end up rhyming with it.
Another reason is World War I affected society in nonmilitary ways: It sparked independence movements around the globe and women’s rights movements as a result of women being left to run things while the men were off at war. Harry Truman’s experiences in the war caused him to integrate America’s armed forces when he became president. The global shift from steam to oil was a result of World War I. And the United States shifted from being an isolationist country to a global military power, and we are still living with the consequences of that today.
It is also personal for me, because my grandfather served in World War I. I keep some things of his in my desk. (Gets out a shaving kit with a canvas cover and a folder with a letters in it.)
This is a Christmas card my grandfather sent from France to his family in England in 1917. This is my grandfather’s shaving kit — a beautiful German-made blade with a real horn handle.
The war altered my family’s circumstances forever because of what being in the trenches did psychologically to my grandfather. He could never get his footing back in England after the war, so my family became part of the great migration to Australia.
Why are you playing taps in the week running up to the anniversary of the start of the war?
We are not having fireworks or a gala, because there is nothing to celebrate. Instead we will have a very emotional experience of taps being played, a wreath being laid and a reading at sunset. That’s it: five minutes and it’s over. We are treating it in a very solemn, respectful way.
What are your favorite exhibits at the museum?
A couple of things really grab me. As you enter the museum, on the right hand side you see displays of very colorful, beautiful uniforms and ornate swords from the various countries. That is how troops entered the war, in this romantic vision of previous wars. And on the left, directly juxtaposed to that, is the artillery they found themselves confronted with. The rapid mechanization of the war led to the incredible number of casualties, numbers that would never be tolerated today.
Another thing I love, because there is a strong local angle, are the medical exhibits. Medicine advanced enormously during World War I. The trauma medicine practiced in emergency rooms today has its roots in World War I.
Base Hospital 28 was a field hospital in southern France that was staffed primarily with surgeons and nurses from Kansas City, and many of the surgeons who came back were the founding surgeons at the University of Kansas’ medical school and hospital.
And there’s an anteroom that celebrates how central Kansas City was to efforts to honor the lives lost and create a memorial to peace. In a two-week period, 83,000 Kansas Citians contributed money to build a memorial — the equivalent of $40 million dollars today.
In 1921, all five Allied commanders came here to Kansas City in an era when you could not just get on a plane and fly here. They came by boat and then by train to dedicate the land for the memorial, and more than 100,000 people attended.
In 1926 President Coolidge dedicated the memorial in front of the largest crowd a president had ever addressed, 150,000 people. For the next five years, Kansas City again has a chance to shine and lead the way in helping the world learn from and commemorate the Great War.