The mood at the beginning of a war is poignant, in hindsight, when everyone knows what came later.
That is the point of a new centennial exhibit at the National World War I Museum that comprises mostly objects that have never been exhibited before.
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From clean uniforms to photos of smiling soldiers, the display titled “Over by Christmas” explores the edge of the abyss.
“Like every war, they thought it was going to be over quick,” said museum curator Doran Cart. “And like every war, as soon as you plan that, it goes right out the window. It wasn’t over by Christmas. It was four more years.”
The exhibit opens Saturday and runs through next March at the Liberty Memorial. It is included with museum admission.
Arguably, the first shots of World War I were fired June 28, 1914, with the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire. The actual war began July 28.
By Aug. 1, the Germans were already covering up those spikes and brass ornaments on their helmets. They made too easy a target.
Also doomed were the red baggy pants worn at the beginning on the Western Front by the North African infantry of the French colonial army. It was a completely impractical uniform for modern warfare, and few uniforms survived. The one in the exhibit was recently acquired by the Liberty Memorial for this centennial display.
The exhibit also includes a British rifle made in 1914 by the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. of New Haven, Conn., in the technically neutral United States.
It also provides insight into a footnote of the war with items salvaged from the wreck of the German SMS Cormoran. The ship had been built in Germany for Russia. When the two nations became combatants, the Germans seized the ship north of Japan and put it to service as a raider in the Pacific.
Needing supplies, it called to port at Guam, which belonged to the United States. Refused coal, the ship’s crew spent the next three years out of the fight. After the U.S. entered the war in 1917, the Germans sank the ship.
A salvage operation of the Cormoran in the 1960s produced a brass and glass porthole, a steam pressure gauge and personal items belonging to the crew. All that and more is on display in the exhibit.
Back on the Western Front, both sides had resorted to digging trenches by the fall of 1914. The lines are clear in a French battle map.
“When they entrenched, that really sealed the fate of the war being over by Christmas because you couldn’t budge from that point,” said Cart.
“I think they still hoped. Some of them hoped throughout the war that it would be quick and easy because when you’re in that kind of situation, that’s really, basically, all you have.”