I made a lot of stops on my recent drive out and back from Colorado Springs including the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. When I first heard about the museum, maybe 7 or 8 years ago, I figured I’d never get there because what in the world would I ever go to Kansas City for? I couldn’t justify a trip there just for the museum. But it turned out that my route through the heartland to Colorado went right through the City. Go figure.
I had spent the night before in Lawrence, Kansas. A line of thunderstorms and tornadoes blew threw the area that night. Several touched down just east of Kansas City, but my arrival at the Museum was marked with blue skies and gusty winds. Of course, I took a bad selfie. Later, I rode the elevator to the top of the tower and enjoyed a spectacular view of the city. It actually looks like a lovely city.
There were several highlights at the museum. The first was going into a sound booth and clicking on music, poetry, and speeches from the war. Among other things, I listened to Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorem Est. In that little sound proof booth as I listened to a British man read Owen’s poem (Owen was killed about a week before the armistice), I got chills and had to hold back a few tears. Very powerful! Another highlight was watching a diorama of No Man’s Land with lights flashing (for flares and bombs) while a movie of trench warfare streamed in the background. Quite impressive.
Looking down at the No Man’s Land Diorama.
My favorite highlight though, was chatting with the 80 year old Marine Corp veteran of WWII who was a volunteer at the museum. He was stationed upstairs in the original part of the museum and nobody was up there except us. His father had served in WWI in France, just like my great Uncle Harry and my grandfather. We talked about our trips to France and the Western Front, he’d been there several times. We talked about the hospitality of the French when we’d visited. He told me the story of one of the hotel proprietors who remembered him ten years later. We talked about the war and how hardly anyone in the U.S. knows much about it, even though there were so many lessons to be learned, and some still waiting to be learned.
I was heartened to see some high school groups wandering through the exhibits even though the kids looked pretty bored. I probably would have looked the same when I was their age. It took me awhile and some family letters to get me interested, and now I can’t seem to get enough.
My latest encaustic painting showing the gas masks of WWI.
I was going to write about the horror of the gas attacks of WWI which were used by all sides, not just the Germans, but instead I decided to post the most well known WWI poem describing some of the effects of chlorine gas. Wilfred Owen, who served in WWI and died shortly before Armistice, tells it so much better than I could.
DULCE ET DECORUM EST
by Wilfred Owen, 1918
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
My encaustic painting on barn board, entitled Forward.
My interest in World War I started when my mother gave me letters her uncle Harry (my great uncle) sent home during his time in France in 1918. I learned a lot about Harry but not much about the war so I searched a variety of online sources, took out books from the library, looked at photographs, watched WWI documentaries on youtube and anything else I could find. An unexpected source came from reading WWI poetry especially the poetry of British poet,Wilfred Owen. My friend and poet, Tamra Higgins, reminded me recently about the WWI poets by sharing with me an online WWI poetry lecture.
When I first read Owen’s poem, The Parable of the Old Man and the Young, I was so impressed I tried a sonnet of my own that I aptly called “The Parable of the Man and His Brother.” Like Owen, I chose an old and very famous Biblical story and adapted it to the time period of WWI with my own take on the war.
Of course, one of the things that makes Owen’s poems genius, and mine only a copy, is that Owen was a pioneer in the use of the sonnet form to describe the horrors of war. A soldier himself and one who died in the final week of the war, his gruesome descriptions, irony, and pathos still resonate 100 years later. The twisting of the Judeo-Christian religious story of Abraham and Isaac served as a bitter reproach to the leaders of the day especially because in the early 1900s most English, German, French and American populations, soldiers, and leaders were very religious Christians.
Although my attempts at the sonnet never really got off the ground, I enjoyed researching the form, reading poems, researching Biblical stories, and then applying the critical word-choice approach to my own writing.