At least for a few minutes on Sunday, 11-year-old Zachary Lowrence got a sense of what it was like to be a Russian soldier in World War I.
The Coffeyville, Kan., boy was laden with half a tent and poles, a haversack, bedroll, canteen, cooking pot, gas mask, shovel and a “light” machine gun that weighed 35 pounds.
“They don’t carry a lot of equipment because they are a relatively backward army,” explained Richard Faulkner of Leavenworth, himself wearing a Russian uniform during a living history program at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City. “The poor German soldier, the French and British soldier, are talking about 65 to 75 pounds.”
“It was pretty cool,” said Zachary, who was with his grandparents, Jerry and Jerrie Ann Lowrance. “I got to try on the stuff and basically know what the experience is.”
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The monthly, all-day programs are made possible by the Living History Volunteer Corps at the museum at Liberty Memorial. Sunday’s theme was the eastern front in 1916, 100 years ago. Upcoming programs include medical practices in the field on April 10 and “boredom in the trenches” on June 12. The programs are free and do not require a ticket to the museum.
The volunteers bring their own vintage artifacts or reproductions. Unlike most objects in the museum collection, these are available for people to handle.
“That’s part of the appeal,” said volunteer Steven Allen of Bonner Springs, who was dressed in a German uniform and explaining the evolution of German helmets. “This program is very visual, very tactile. You can learn an awful in the museum, but this gives people an opportunity to react with the materials of the period.”
The living history program is organized by Jeff Leser of Lansing, who on Sunday portrayed an Ottoman soldier. Part of his display was rock hard bread that has to be hydrated to become edible.
“The Ottoman Empire is not an industrialized country,” Leser explained to a group of visitors. “They didn’t have the advantage of tin cans to package food in to preserve it. It was simple peasant fare.”
Faulkner, who teaches military history at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, also demonstrated a 1910 model of a Russian water-cooled machine gun that could fire 500-600 rounds a minute.
“It gets pretty hot,” Faulkner said. “The problem is, if you don’t find a way of cooling down the machine gun it overheats. The barrel starts to melt or the parts start to expand and jam.”
He also explained that Russian soldiers were not issued socks. Instead, they were given cloth sheets to wrap around their feet.
“As much as we can, we try to make that human connection between the patron and the war,” he said. “You can get lost in the bigness, so this brings it down to the fact that there were humans involved with this.”