Arts & Culture

‘Even the ruin was ruined’: New ‘Devastated Lands’ exhibit captures WWI destruction

“Ruined town”
“Ruined town” National World War I Museum and Memorial

When the shelling stopped on the Western Front a century ago, the dazed combatants of the First World War looked about and saw devastation.

Whole towns and villages were gone. The land was scarred beyond recognition.

“It was a waste so utter that even the ruin was ruined,” observed John Masefield, poet laureate of the United Kingdom.

The National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City documents that in a new exhibit called “Devastated Lands,” with original photos and illustrations from the museum’s vast collection. It will be in Memory Hall through Dec. 22, 2019, and is included with general admission.

Some of the photos were taken by the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Some are simply titled “Ruined town.”

“That’s all we know,” said Doran Cart, senior curator of the museum. “A lot of times the photographers didn’t even know where they were, from one village to the next. Even the town signs ceased to exist.”

One identifiable photo, however, is of the bombed out cathedral in Reims, where French kings were crowned. The crucifix survived amid the rubble of war.

An American Red Cross canteen worker wrote home from France in May 1919, after having visited the front.

“There is no use my trying to describe the destruction and desolation up there,” wrote Adelaide Travis. “No description, picture or amount of imagination would give you any idea of it. I was awfully shocked and after seeing it all I marvel that any of them are alive to tell what they have been through.”

Elementary students on a recent school field trip to the exhibit mistook a photograph of the cratered French landscape for the moon.

When the war began in August 1914 the German army rolled through Belgium and into northern France, where the two sides soon became trapped in four years of trench warfare. Tens of thousands of soldiers were maimed or killed. An estimated 62,000 Belgian and 300,000 French civilians also died from war-related causes.

Farmers today continue to come across unexploded ordnance, including mustard gas.

“The deadly legacy of the war is still with us,” the museum said in introducing the new exhibit.

Coinciding with the exhibit, the World War I museum announced it has completed its “Call to Duty” capital campaign with foundation pledges totaling $25 million. The funds have allowed the creation of a new exhibit space and improvements to the exterior grounds, among other projects.

“Devastated Lands”

Showing at National World War I Museum and Memorial. Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Adults, $16; children ages 6-18, $10. Admission includes the museum as well as the special exhibit. www.theworldwar.org

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