By Jonathan Casey, Director of the Archives and Edward Jones Research Center at the National WWI Museum
The National World War I Museum and Memorial has maintained its French connections since its conception and development in the 1920s. These connections are mainly historical and curatorial, as to objects and documents in the Museum’s collections, but also relate to popular culture.
The Liberty Memorial and its museum of “war trophies” came out of America’s involvement in World War I, when the United States joined French and other allied forces in the war against Germany. Even before the United States declared entry into the war in April 1917, Americans served as volunteers in France, driving supply trucks and ambulances, flying fighter planes and caring for wounded soldiers. This international connection grew out of a sense of historical friendship and military alliance dating to America’s War of Independence (1775-1783).
The site of the future Liberty Memorial was dedicated during the American Legion’s 3rd Annual Convention in November 1921. Marshal Ferdinand Foch, a French general and military theorist who served as the Supreme Allied Commander during World War I, was one of the honored foreign military guests present at this dedication. He spoke to the largest audience gathered for a public event in Kansas City to that time, praising the fighting ability of the American soldiers and the cooperation of the American government in achieving victory.
When the Liberty Memorial and WWI Museum opened in November 1926, France was one of several war-time allied nations to donate historical material to the Museum’s collection. The French gift was stonework from Reims Cathedral, a significant historical, cultural, and architectural structure that was nearly destroyed during four years of bombardment. France’s early enthusiasm for the WWI Museum did not end with this inaugural gift, as in 1983 the French government presented it with a restored 75mm field gun, the iconic “soixante-quinze”, that was the kind of gun used in the field artillery battery commanded by Captain Harry S Truman, the future U.S. president. The French 75 is exhibited along with several other examples of artillery in the Museum’s main gallery. See: https://www.theworldwar.org/exhibitions
The American Expeditionary Forces did most of its fighting in France and the exhibits in the WWI Museum’s main gallery and temporary gallery spaces reflect the importance of France’s role in the war’s narrative. World War I did not start on French soil, but the fighting on the Western Front, the last of several fronts in Europe and the Near East, ended at Compiegne, France, in Marshal Foch’s train car on November 11, 1918, that became known as Armistice Day.
The National WWI Museum and Memorial continues to have a working relationship with the spirit of France and French presence in Kansas City. We partner with the Kansas City Chapter of Alliance Française to present public programs, such as lectures and French language films; an example of the latter is an ongoing holiday tradition, screening the movie JOYEUX NOËL. This film is about the 1914 Christmas Truce told from the viewpoints of French, British and German soldiers who put down their arms to celebrate a moment of peace in a time of war. To reserve a seat for a free screening of this film at 2:00pm on Sunday, December 15th at the WWI Museum, go to: http://www.afkc.org/event-3624465.
Note: The cover picture for this essay is a poster from the National World War I Museum and Memorial. The JOYEUX NOËL picture below is from the DVD cover of the movie: https://www.amazon.com/Joyeux-Noel-DVD/dp/B000HWXQH0