And on a wall, Uncle Sam glares from a war poster admonishing, "I want you for U.S. Army."
This was World War I, and this is the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, opened to the public in 2006. In some ways World War I, fought between 1914 and 1918, has become the forgotten war for Americans, but that never should have been allowed to happen. Some confuse it with World War II. A few years back, a nationally known reporter asked a brigadier general visiting the museum, "Did you fight in World War I?"
It's not all ancient history. In a sense, the world was fighting World War I as recently as the 1990s - the Balkan civil wars of that time could easily be viewed as an extension of the war.
But most people know little about the conflict once known as the Great War, which ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 - the day we now celebrate as Veterans Day, once known as Armistice Day. Museum spokeswoman Denise Rendina said, "A lot of people know so much about World War II but nothing about World War I. The museum starts at the ground and builds the story for them."
One enters the complex by crossing a re-created Western front poppy field, reminiscent of the famed John McCrae poem "In Flanders Field." Each of the poppies represents 1,000 dead combatants. The museum is divided into two sections - one covering the years 1914-1917, before the United States entered the war, and the other delving into the years the United States took an active role in the fighting, 1917-1918.
Why was it fought? An enigmatic statement spoken by a narrator begins an introductory multimedia presentation: "No one can say precisely why it happened - which may be, in the end, the best explanation for why it did."
The match that lit the powder keg was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the empire of Austria-Hungary, by a young Bosnian Serb named Gavrilo Princip. The introductory video ends with the sounds of two gunshots, and a declaration that within one week after the assassination, seven European nations were at war.
The details are told through an extensive timeline, the mass of which may seem intimidating. Then again, perusing the timeline is the only way to uncover such little-known gems as the following from 1916: Future author "J.R.R. Tolkien takes part in the Battle of the Somme. Tolkien's first experience on the front comes on a Friday, July 14, with an unsuccessful attack on the village of Ovillers. His unit is later relieved after days of fighting."
As at most modern museums, interactive exhibits engage visitors on personal and creative levels. You can use a light pen to design your own patriotic - or propaganda - poster, then e-mail it home, or determine the uses of camouflage.
Or take some time to listen to fighting men's letters read aloud as you look inside a typical trench. A German soldier gets teary-eyed on Christmas Eve in 1915, thinking about life in his hometown that night as he keeps company with his own little tree in his trench. A Belgian lieutenant complains about rats in his trench. A French infantryman offers, "Shells of all calibers kept raining on our sector. The trenches had disappeared, filled with earth. The air was unbreathable. Our blinded, wounded, crawling and shouting soldiers kept falling on top of us and died splashing us with their blood. It was living hell."
As the political map evolved as a result of World War I, so did the means of warfare. A virtual armory is here. Body armor, straight from the legends of Lancelot and Arthur, was tried early on, but soon tanks became the ultimate battlefield weapon.
Yet no other dimension of the war saw such fast-paced technological advances as air combat. The heavier-than-air flying machine, just a decade past its birth at Kitty Hawk, evolved from a reconnaissance machine to fighters, dropping bombs, strafing trenches, and gunning for one another. By the end of the war, pilots were flying planes with two or three wings and swivel-mounted machine guns for a second gunner. A replica of a biplane hangs from the ceiling.
The museum building has its own intriguing history. It opened in 1926 with a tower and two exhibit halls. By the 1990s the property was declared unsafe.
City leaders decided to convert the expansive space under the original structure into a state of the art museum. The two original galleries are used mainly for rotating exhibitions, and yes, one can take an elevator and short stairway to the tower summit as veterans of U.S. wars did shortly after they returned Stateside decades ago.