Sunday, April 15, 2012

WWI: The Forgotten World War

One of our goals for this trip was to learn more about WWI, known as "La Grande Guerre" (the big war) here in France -- a cataclysmic event that has always been overshadowed by what came next, namely WWII.  Today, we were up before the garbage men to begin our explorations by visiting Compiegne, a small town in the north of France.  WWI ended in the Compiegne Forest at what is now called the "Armistice Clearing."

In 1918, WWI came to an end when Germany surrendered in these isolated woods inside a railroad car on the 11th of November.  The terms of the surrender were quite harsh and humiliating for the Germans (and often blamed for bringing on WWII).  The French even took the rail car into Paris to show off where the armistice was signed.

The small museum displays a rail car just like the original:

The rail car contains all the original furnishings and the place cards indicate where each individual would have been seated, including Marshal Foch, the French general who was the hero of the Battle of the Marne and the Supreme Commander of the Allied Armies in France. 

The museum contains many WWI artifacts, but some of the best displays were the wooden picture scopes that allow you to view old black-and-white WWI photos with a 3D stereoscopic effect.  These are gory but alluring 3D WWI images that really make you feel as if you are in the trenches!

Of course, Hitler seems to find his way into every war story, and he played a role here in Compiegne as well.  When the French surrendered to the Nazis in June of 1940, Hitler made the French drag out the old rail car and position it exactly where Germany had been forced to surrendered back in 1918.  Hitler even insisted on sitting in Marshal Foch's seat! 

Hitler took the rail car back to Germany where it was on display in Berlin for awhile, but it was eventually burned.  (Maybe when the war started to turn against him, Hitler decided he didn't want to have to revisit the rail car!)  Here is a picture of a happy Hitler humiliating the French in front of the rail car at the time of the French surrender (22 Jun 1940):

A few days later, we continued our quest to better understand WWI with a visit to the Musee la Grand Guerre.  This is a brand new museum just opened on 11/11/11 in a city north of Paris called Meaux (pronounced: moh).  Once again, we were up early and on our way to the train station.  By the way, Paris is the railroad hub for the entire country making it possible to do hundreds of day trips like this.

For France, the roots of WWI go back to the Franco-Prussian war that ended in 1871 with France having to turn over the Alsace and Lorraine regions to Germany.  This set off  longstanding animosity between the Germans and the French.  In elementary schools across France, little boys were encouraged to play "pretend war" at recess and talk about how many Bosch (Germans) they would kill.  There was a nationalistic (and militaristic) fervor that would ignite into war with any incident between the two countries.  War was inevitable, and the incident that became the catalyst for WWI was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand on 28 June 1914!

All of Europe seemed caught up in the frenzy.  In many ways, WWI seems like one big "land grab."  Everybody had their own agendas: France wanted the Alsace and Lorraine back, Poland wanted to be independent, plus Russia, Serbia, and Austria-Hungary all had their eyes on the same territory.  What a setting for greed!  The opposing forces aligned themselves like this: Britain, France, and Russia on one side with Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy on the other.

Body armor worn during WWI

We can't begin to describe everything we learned here, but one aspect that stands out is how primitive warfare was, even in 1914.  Soldiers still wore chest and face armour and ridiculously fancy uniforms (like some kind of modern, yet medieval knights).  Initially, the main method of communicating among the troops was by using bugles -- and then, they graduated to carrier pigeons!  (Later on, they used the telegraph.)  The museum had lots of fascinating videos, and one showed airmen dropping bombs out of airplanes by hand.  Literally, throwing them over the side of the open cockpit!

Recreations of soldiers headed off to WWI. 
(Note that horses played a major role.)

Of course, WWI has the distinction of being the first "modern war," using tanks, flimsy airplanes, and chemical warfare, particularly mustard gas.  Death by gas was slow and painful, and the use of lethal gas was eventually banned by the Geneva Convention.  Here is an actual gas mask:

When the Americans entered the war, the modernization of warfare took a step forward: each U.S. soldier was issued a sidearm that looked like it was a throwback to the Wild West and a set of brass knuckles (as shown below).

Equipment issued to each American G.I.

WWI is also known for trench warfare.  Basically, each side would dig in, roll out the barbed wire, and create a no man's land in-between.  Trench warfare was eliminated when tanks and jeeps provided more mobility. 

The museum did a good job of recreating life in the trenches where mazes of underground tunnels held everything armies needed: sleeping quarters, hospitals, kitchens etc. -- although the conditions were appalling.  The museum even had motion-activated sound effects that made your footsteps sound like you were trouncing through the sucking, squelchy mud.

A trench bedroom

A couple of comments about the museum itself.  Whenever we visit museums overseas, we have a new appreciation for our museums in the U.S.  Not that this was a bad museum, but it could definitely stand some improvement.  It seemed like the whole museum needed a clearer focus.  For example, a timeline to follow the events of the war is definitely needed, and the audio guide, which could have been so effective, was so disjointed that we stopped using it.  But here is our favorite observation: there were only one pair of restrooms for the entire multi-level museum with two stalls in the ladies room and just one stall in the men's.  And this is a very modern structure just opened less than 6 months ago!

Classic U.S. recruitment poster for WWI

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