Wake County

Centennial of US entry into WWI puts ‘Great War’ in focus

Beth Thomasson listens to a demonstration of World War I weaponry Saturday at the opening of the North Carolina in the Great War exhibition at the N.C. Museum of History in downtown Raleigh.
Beth Thomasson listens to a demonstration of World War I weaponry Saturday at the opening of the North Carolina in the Great War exhibition at the N.C. Museum of History in downtown Raleigh. jdjackson@newsobserver.com

The shallow steel helmet once belonging to Army Pfc. Robert Salsbury of Martin County sits behind glass at the North Carolina Museum of History, bearing the gash from German machine gun fire in World War I. Salsbury survived the attack and now his story joins many others in the museum’s newest exhibition, “North Carolina in the Great War,” which will run for the next 20 months.

Dubbed “The Great War” and “The War to End All Wars” in its time, contemporary Americans look back at World War I grimly aware that more global conflicts would follow. The new exhibition opens days after the 100th anniversary of the United States joining the fight and organizers worry that a century of time and other wars have dimmed the American memory of World War I.

“The veterans I interviewed, their biggest concern was that their service and sacrifice would be just completely forgotten,” deputy director of the museum and lead curator of the exhibition Jackson Marshall said, referring to interviews he did in the 1980s and ’90s. “They were crushed when World War II came about and they had to send their sons and grandsons. They really did believe, as President (Woodrow) Wilson told them, that this would be the last war... This exhibition is to honor and remember them.”

North Carolina sent more than 86,000 soldiers to the front lines, Marshall said, and its 30th Division helped break through the Hindenburg line, one of the main German defenses, leading ultimately to the end of the war. Back home, he said, the war forced a North and South still divided from the Civil War to come together in a common cause.

“The important thing about the North Carolina story in World War I, this was an American experience,” Marshall said. “Just a generation before, we fought a civil war. These were the sons and grandsons of our Civil War veterans. We were obviously very divided in the Civil War. This was the first war where the United States reunited. This was a nationalist, American war, Northern and Southern states coming back together, and we were part of that story.”

This was a 19th-century war fought with 20th-century technology and it was absolutely brutal.

Jackson Marshall, Museum of History deputy director

Saturday’s ribbon cutting followed a wreath laying at the State Capitol by Gov. Roy Cooper and Maj. Gen. Gregory Lusk of the North Carolina National Guard. Cooper said the freedoms all Americans enjoy are owed to the wartime sacrifices and service of those in the military.

“I’m able to stand here today and say whatever I want, because of you,” Cooper said. “I’m able to run for any office because of you. I’m able to demonstrate, I’m able to have the freedom to travel. I have my freedom because of you.”

Beyond the wreath laying and exhibition opening, other groups are also marking the centennial of the U.S. entry into World War I. Meredith College held a three-day symposium on World War I, and later this month Shaw University will focus on the African-American experience in the war with the program “Black Pioneers In Uniform: Shaw University’s Leonard Medical School & The Great War” on April 29.

Horrors of war

The exhibit doesn’t shy away from the horrors of the war in its telling of history. There are no graphic images or videos, but behind glass hang ghostly-looking gas masks used by American and European forces, needed as the war was the first to use chemical weapons. It was the first to use machine guns, flame throwers and barbed wire, and behind glass the exhibition puts on display the tools humanity used to tear itself apart.

“We wanted people to understand the cruelty, the devastation of that war; the shellfire these men were enduring was like the world has never experienced,” Marshall said. “The technology was so far ahead of what people expected. This was a 19th-century war fought with 20th-century technology and it was absolutely brutal.”

A large section of the exhibition is built into life-size trenches, resembling the ones dug by soldiers on both sides as an escape from the gunfire. The trenches established a deadly “no man’s land” between them, where advancing soldiers were easy targets, causing the war to be fought more like sieges than battles. LaRae Umfleet of the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources said it was important to highlight trenches in the exhibition.

“The trench truly defined the battlefield of World War I and that’s why the trench is so ingrained in the exhibition,” Umfleet said. “It puts the visitor into the experience of World War I, in the footsteps of the soldiers... You know that if you stick your head up, you might not bring your head back down.”

Umfleet said the Civil War and World War II tend to squeeze out World War I in the historical consciousness of most Americans, but she and Marshall said the reverberations of the war are still felt today. Tension with Russia, unrest in the Middle East and ideas of combat ethics in the Geneva Convention all have roots in World War I, they said.

Marshall questions whether any of those lessons have been learned, though, as the exhibition opens the same week reports of chemical attacks in Syria dominated headlines.

“Entire nations, empires collapsed because of this war,” Marshall said. “Poison gas was first used in World War I and it was so horrible that the Geneva Convention banned the use of poison gas, and yet it’s in the news today in Syria. So the lessons of World War I, we should have learned them and we haven’t.”

Drew Jackson; 919-603-4943; @jdrewjackson

If you go

What: North Carolina in the Great War

Where: N.C. Museum of History, 5 E. Edenton St. Raleigh

When: 9 a.m.- 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday, through Jan. 6, 2019

Cost: Free

For information: ncmuseumofhistory.org