Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - May 22, 2009

"Over there"

Husband Art, our daughters and I crossed the glass bridge. Below our feet were 9,000 poppies - each one representing 1,000 soldiers who lost their lives.

We had gone to Kansas City the day before to hear the Kansas City Symphony's performance of the music from the movie version of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings." I had forgotten until the girls reminded us that part of Tolkien's inspiration for the trilogy had been his experiences in "The Great War." Our plan to visit the National World War I Museum below the Liberty Memorial had arisen from reading articles in the Kansas City Star about the refurbishing of the United States's only memorial to the "war to end all wars."

A guide explained the significance of the poppies.

John McCrae, a Canadian doctor serving in Belgium during the war, penned "In Flanders Fields" when he noticed the bright orange flowers growing among the rows of white crosses in a cemetery - a cemetery on the outskirts of Ypres, a town we had visited in 2003.

"In Flanders Fields the poppies blow, between the crosses row on row . . . "

Perhaps one of the most memorable war poems ever written, it led to the flower's adoption in 1923 by the Veterans of Foreign Wars as a symbol it has used ever since in its fund-raising efforts for wounded soldiers.

Tolkien had served in the Somme and experienced the life of a trench soldier - the cold, the ever-present mud, the unavoidable lice and the memories of unspeakable horrors that some soldiers felt made combat seem almost attractive in comparison. By 1917, one of every three French men between the ages of 18 and 30 had died in the war. The Western Front stretched 466 miles long, with 35,000 miles of trenches crisscrossing it. Meant to protect the soldiers from gunfire, they became the graves of many. One soldier said, ". . .Mud is where men sink and - what is worse - where their souls sink . . . Hell is not fire. . . Hell is mud . . ."

For us, the war was "over there." The United States was preoccupied with suffragettes and civil rights. Woodrow Wilson had been elected in 1916 on the platform: "he kept us out of war." Our country was a nation of immigrants and, while most had come from the countries of the Allies, 10 million had once called Germany home and so, what public allegiances there were, were split.

Then the government discovered Germany was encouraging Mexico to take up arms against us, promising her help in regaining the land occupied by our southwestern states. War was declared on April 2, 1917.

Some feel modern public relations began when Wilson created the Committee on Public Information. It produced posters, pamphlets and patriotic films. Special sections were created to reach non-English speaking immigrants, African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans

Women on the home front grew vegetables in backyard gardens, canned foods for future use, and observed "meatless, sweetless and heatless" days to preserve resources for the war effort. Peach pits were gathered and burned to produce charcoal, the filtering material in gas masks. Sheep were grazed on the White House lawn to provide wool. Volunteers in San Francisco's Chinatown knitted socks for soldiers

The war ended at 11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. The Allies prevailed not so much because of military superiority, but because Germany's resources were exhausted.

By the end, 42 languages and dialects had been spoken among the American Expeditionary Forces, and soldiers Douglas MacArthur, George Marshall, George Patton and Harry Truman had learned much that served them well in an even larger global conflict that began two decades later.

Tolkien learned too. He had taken comfort in fighting with three friends at The Battle of the Somme. But a few months later, two of those friends were dead. Yet Tolkien chose in his writing to focus his attention on the redemptive power of individual human action as part of a common cause.

Tolkien's work has been described as a "large-scale memorial to the modest struggles of ordinary people doing their best for good against the forces of inhumanity."

The folks who restored the Liberty Memorial and put their work and money into the World War I Museum with its movies, guides dressed as soldiers, hands-on displays, time lines and some 49,000 war-time artifacts have similarly produced a monument worthy to the "war to end all wars." And the fact that they brought the experience from "over there" to the heartland is a marvelous feat in itself.

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