A century after the United States took the leap and joined the European Allies in the slaughterhouse that was World War I, the nation and the world gathered in Kansas City to contemplate the ordeal and the changes it wrought.
“We still live in the long shadow of World War I in every part of our lives,” said retired Col. Robert J. Dalessandro, chairman of the United States World War One Centennial Commission.
Foreign dignitaries from 27 countries joined elected officials and regular Americans from 26 states under an azure sky with no rain to hear words and songs from another era. A multimedia program, on a stage with two huge screens framing the Liberty Memorial, told the story of American reluctance and then steadfastness in venturing “Over There” to end the carnage on the Western Front and make the world safe for democracy.
“I wanted to bring my son to show him the significance of World War I,” said Brian Hand of Kansas City, who served in Iraq with the Missouri National Guard, as 6-year-old Silas Hand sat next to him. “To show him the significance of the sacrifice our soldiers make for freedom around the world. To let him know that history is important.”
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Speakers noted that the Great War brought dramatic changes in technology, medicine and society. It was also the world’s introduction to the carnage of modern warfare fought with tanks, from the air, with mustard gas and the devastating power of machine guns. Soldiers began the war on horseback and ended it in armored vehicles.
A variety of speakers kept the attention of the crowd that gathered before 9 a.m. until the main program at 11 a.m. It began with a montage of images and sounds of the biplanes of World War I that segued into red, white and blue flyovers of the Patrouille de France. The montage was repeated at the end of the program just before a B-2 bomber glided silently over the scene from north to south.
Along the way, tribute was paid to African-Americans and Native Americans and immigrants of all origins for their significant contributions to the war effort.
Dignitaries from Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Hungary, Italy and the United Kingdom read passages from their respective governments’ reactions at the time to America’s involvement.
An emotional peak was an extended moment of silence followed by the tolling of bells and the boom of cannons that echoed across downtown.
Ann Nelson of Fairway and her friend Paula Labart of Weatherby Lake were among those witnessing the one-time-only event.
“World War I, for me, is the most interesting part of history,” Nelson said. “I particularly like the World War I poets.”
She was carrying a small book of wartime poetry autographed by the late British war historian John Keegan.
Four-year-old Alex Braafladt was dressed as a doughboy, having made the trip with his parents, Amanda and Kevin Braafladt, from Bettendorf, Iowa.
Doug Evans, 54, of Canton, Kan., came to honor his grandfather, Harvey D. McMickell. A saddler with the 110th Engineers, McMickell deployed to France in 1917 with three of his brothers.
“He would talk about the war all the time,” said Evans, who keeps a photograph of McMickell on his phone and still has a copy of his grandfather’s discharge papers.
“I’m here to see all the history and to honor his sacrifice,” Evans said.
Other descendants were part of Thursday’s program. Helen Patton, whose grandfather George S. Patton led a tank squadron through France in World War I, was there. So were family members of Gen. John Pershing, who commanded the American Expeditionary Force in France; of war hero Sgt. Alvin York; and of one of the bilingual Signal Corps switchboard operators known as the Hello Girls.
“Today, we honor a generation of Americans no longer among us physically, but we can all sense their presence … a century later,” said Charles E. Schmidt, the national commander of the American Legion. “Their success in the Great War … laid a foundation not only for the American military, but for America itself.”
But the American entry into the war did not come without wrenching debate. That was captured by local actors reciting the words of President Woodrow Wilson, President Teddy Roosevelt and others. The rift was poignantly expressed by a performance of the song “America, Here’s My Boy” followed by “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier.”
While the debate raged in America, the slaughter continued in Europe. More than 1.5 million artillery shells were fired over a period of 168 hours in the Battle of the Somme, which “permanently scarred the souls of those who were there,” according to one reading.
The United States lost more than 116,000 soldiers in the conflict to combat and disease.
The European war began in 1914, but the United States did not enter the conflict until 1917 after Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare and continued to sink American merchant ships. It was recalled in the centennial program that Wilson, who had staunchly advocated neutrality, finally had to ask Congress for war and was applauded in the street on his way back to the White House. The people did not realize they were applauding for death, he said, before lowering his head in tears.
The infusion of American forces on the side of France and the United Kingdom tipped the balance in favor of the Allies and against Germany.
The conflict did not turn out to be the “war to end all wars” it was imagined at the time, U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver told Thursday’s crowd.
“Even at this very hour, the threats loom large,” he said. Still, the Kansas City Democrat said, “this memorial reminds us of the sacrifice, the service and the significance of a determined nation. … The best of our country rose to the surface.”
The United States World War One Centennial Commission selected Kansas City as the site for the observance because of the Liberty Memorial, which is designated by Congress as the National World War I Museum and Memorial. Kansas City Mayor Sly James noted that 83,000 Kansas Citians raised $2.5 million — the equivalent of $34 million in 2017 dollars — to build it.
Representing the United States on Thursday was acting Secretary of the Army Robert M. Speer, who quoted from President Calvin Coolidge’s remarks at the 1926 dedication of the memorial.
Keith Harman, senior vice commander-in-chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said his organization’s goals align with the memorial to never forget.
“To never forget the selfless service and great sacrifice of those who paid the highest price for freedom … to never forget the families.”
Matthew Naylor, president and CEO of the National World War I Museum and Memorial, said afterward he was pleased with the centennial program.
“We did what we needed to do,” he said. “It was instructive, it was educational, but it was also moving.”
C-SPAN 3 plans to air the ceremony at 9 a.m. Sunday.