Vive l’Amérique

The World War I Museum showcases a collection of drawings that reveal the war through the eyes of children

A very important, but very bittersweet, centennial anniversary will be celebrated this year. Tuesday, April 4, 2017 marks the 100-year anniversary of the day that the United States Senate voted in support of a measure to declare war on Germany. The House concurred two days later.

Two months later, transport ships carrying 14,000 U.S. troops in the American Expeditionary Force approached the shores of France; these soldiers would join the Allied fight against the Central Powers and until the fighting officially ended on November 11, 1918, the “War to End All Wars” was brutally expensive. The 37 million casualties of the conflict included 117,000 dead and 205,000 wounded Americans.

As part of the anniversary exhibitions scheduled by the National World War I Museum and Memorial, a new collaboration between the Kansas City-based museum and the Le Vieux Montmartre Historical Society in Paris has opened. Curated by Jonathan Casey, the museum’s archivist and Edward Jones Research Center manager, the collection of 30 drawings by French students in 1914—boys between the ages of 8 and 13 years old—is featured in the museum galleries under the title Vive l’Amérique: French Children Welcome Their American Ally until October 15, 2017. It marks the first time these artworks have been displayed anywhere outside of France.

Kansas City Spaces: Wasn’t there a local connection to the discovery that this cache of drawings even existed?

Jonathan Casey: We learned of the collection of drawings from a Kansas City resident, Maija Diethelm. Her stepmother is a French native who lives in Paris and is a volunteer at the Le Vieux Montmartre Historical Society and has worked with the collection that inspired the Vive l’Amérique: French Children Welcome Their American Ally.

KCS: France entered the war well before the United States did, but America’s entrance into the conflict in 1917 was a real morale-booster. Were these pictures assigned by a single teacher as a class project?

JC: It’s quite a fascinating story. There’s only one teacher’s name associated with the collection, and we believe he was the one who assigned the drawings and essays.

The idea for the drawings—there are actually 1,300 in the collection, we only have a fraction here—was suggested by a schoolteacher as a way to express themselves, through essays and drawings, about how the war would affect their daily lives.

These particular drawings focus on the entrance of America into the war in 1917 and the alliances with the French soldiers. The drawings show soldiers marching through the streets of Paris, soldier canteens set up in French train stations. And although they were all done by children, some of them are really quite well done.

KCS: The themes in the drawings foreshadow a lot of the suffering of the war. Little boys mourning the loss of their fathers and brothers, rationing, privations.

JC: That’s really only a minor theme in the group of drawings that we’re showing here. One drawing depicts Parisians being fed in train stations by an operation that could be the Red Cross. Another depicts a group of orphans being helped by Americans. In both instances, we show the perceptions of children confronted by the suffering of the war without being too heavy-handed. Some of the drawings are somber, some are celebratory. There are a lot of patriotic-looking images, including a little boy “playing” war.

KCS: How do you think these images will resonate with modern viewers?

JC: There’s an innocence about these drawings that’s very moving. These were created by young children, ages 8 to 13, and their understanding of war—particularly a war like this one—is also very innocent. The city of Paris was under a National Emergency and the children were being mobilized to exist in these circumstances. Some of the questions on the essays refer to these life changes, like “If there’s not enough bread to go around in your neighborhood, how can you help with that?”

The Vive l’Amérique: French Children Welcome Their American Ally exhibition runs through October 15 and is supported by the Francis Family Foundation, the Abend Family Philanthropic Fund, and Cyprienne Simchowitz and Gerald White.