Looking back: 100 years since World War I
“The War to End All Wars.” Who can believe that anyone ever described any conflict in this way?
Yet, we are recognizing the centennial of the official end of that war on Nov. 11 at 11 a.m. this year. Sadly enough, this is now the international confrontation known as World War I.
At the Beatrice Public Library, we have begun recognition of this historic event with an exhibit of original World War I posters that are on display in the Vette Cultural Arts Center on the lower level of the building. This area can be accessed by stairs or an elevator. These incredible items can be seen daily during regular library hours. The War Bond posters have been part of the Library collection since the end of World War I. Created by some of the foremost artists in the country, they began to be collected almost immediately due to their striking images and vivid colors.
Rather than discarding them when their initial purpose ended, a number of the local posters were saved and given to the Beatrice Public Library. The gift was noted in the Library Board minutes of the period. They were rolled together and placed in the vault at the Carnegie Building. The posters stayed there undisturbed for 60 years before the Library Director went through the contents of the vault and found them. By that time, World War I had been eclipsed by World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
However, the power and beauty of the images were still intact. With the help of local veterans’ organizations, the first effort to frame and preserve these posters began. This continued as funds became available across many years.
The recent World War I centennial commemorations reactivated interest in this project and additional donations were made to help offset the cost of providing preservation framing for these historic items.
In the meantime, other World War I posters began to appear in area antique stores. These emphasized other subjects including raising food for European war survivors and hiring veterans who had returned looking for employment.
The Beatrice Public Library began using generous gifts to purchase these items and frame them for inclusion in the historic poster collection. This process is still underway, and additional items continue to be added to the exhibit as they are being returned from the framer.
The Beatrice Public Library is hosting a special reception honoring our Veterans on Sunday, Oct. 14 from 2:30-4:30 p.m. to encourage them to view this exhibit and to encourage the community to attend and show their support.
Although it is 100 years since the people shown in these posters served their country, their descendants and the inheritors of the same responsibilities are all around us. This is an opportunity for all of us to consider the sacrifices that have been made on our behalf.
In November part of the collection will move to the Thomas Heritage Room so that it can continue to be viewed. It will also be part of a free public program of World War I art, music and history that will presented by faculty of Southeast Community College at the Public Library on Sunday, Nov. 18 at 2:30 p.m.
The World War I poster collection may seem to be one with limited appeal once the Centennial events end. However plans are already underway to use some of these posters in an exhibit being planned for 2020. That will be the Centennial of the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote.
One of the reasons that this right was finally granted was all the work and support that women had provided during World War I. While this argument had been made going all the way back to the Civil War, the message finally resonated after fifty more years and another horrible war.
One of the reasons that this may have been easier to understand is reflected in some of the images of women in these posters. Not only were people hearing the stories and reading the accounts of women’s assistance, they were seeing illustrations that portrayed women in the context of the War.
On a personal note, the World War I soldiers are the veterans that I remember best from my childhood. I grew up in a post-World War II world when everyone’s father seemed to have been in the War. But there were old men at family reunions with the most ghastly coughs that can be imagined. It was like nothing I have ever heard before or since.
Any question about what was wrong with them was always answered with hushing about even asking and then a quick reply about their service in THE WAR. I learned quickly that this wasn’t my dad’s war, there had been another earlier one. These men had been gassed and lived to return home to central Nebraska with their damaged lungs and ghastly coughs. I mention the place because many men did not get to return home. My grandmother’s older brother was one of those men.
A son of Danish immigrants, my grandmother told me that her parents were proud that he could serve their new country and go to Europe to fight the same enemy that had driven other Danes from their homes. I also mention the area because men from the same communities were sent to war together, fought together and if they survived the gassing, went on suffering together. These men had the same terrible coughs because they had lived through the same terrible attacks of mustard gas.
It was years before I discovered that this gas didn’t smell anything like mustard on a sandwich. This gas had been disguised with a smell like fields of flowers, sometimes specifically violets. In the stench of the trenches and battlefields, those World War I soldiers sucked that welcome smell into their lungs and either died or spent the rest of their lives with impaired lungs and coughs that were unforgettable to all who heard them.
Although it was one hundred years ago, the world is still full of information about World War I. The Library has many novels about that war including audio-books that can be found with a simple subject search. There are movies in the DVD section. All of the World War I history books are located together in an area near the Thomas Heritage Room. Then, there is the historic poster collection that is currently on display. The reason for all of this? We must not forget.