It is 100 years to the day since Congress declared war on Germany, thus entering the Great War. Today, the national centennial commemoration, hosted by the National World War I Museum and Memorial, takes place at the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri.
As American politicians and military leaders share the stage with foreign dignitaries, attendees might see members of the museum’s Living History Volunteer Corps mingling with the public in doughboy and other uniforms.
Jacob Allen, junior in history, is one of the volunteers who reenacts the lives of American soldiers and others from World War I.
“We’ll mostly be mingling with the crowd,” Allen said. “As they enter and leave, we will be there as living mannequins to talk to them, talk about the gear, talk about what we’re wearing and offer our own unique perspective on the war.”
Due to a bureaucratic mistake, Allen never went through the background check necessary to reenact at the centennial. He found out Wednesday — the day before he was supposed to be in Kansas City at 6 a.m.
The security due to the high-profile guests also would have kept Allen’s doughboy uniform from including a rifle, dummy ammunition and a bayonet.
Allen and the other members of the Living History Volunteer Corps at the museum hold monthly interactive presentations and demonstrations that incorporate historical tools, activities and dress.
For example, January’s event was called “Soldier’s Burden.”
“That was the weight soldiers have to carry, and one of the things (we) did was we had the pack, which is the worst pack the United States Army has ever designed, ever issued, ever fielded, ever,” said Allen, an eight-year Army veteran. “Bar none, I’ve tried them all, this one sucks.”
“People would come by, and a little kid would try to put this thing on, and the pack probably weighs as much as they are and is probably as long as they are tall anyway, and so it’s pretty funny,” Allen continued. “Then you hand them the helmet, and they put the helmet on. And it’s funny getting reactions from kids, because sometimes you get big smiles, or they don’t respond or other times they look at you like, ‘Why the heck is this guy dressed this way?'”
Some reenactors take on a personality or first-person character role while “in uniform,” but Allen does not.
“I don’t see the need,” Allen said. “I feel like that puts an artificial buffer between you and the people you are here to educate. Yes, you can give them a lot of information, but it’s hard for someone in a first-person role to then — especially when you’re trying to explain things — do it in a way they can understand and relate to.”
When reenacting, Allen uses a table display of weapons the U.S. Army used in World War I to physically show how unprepared the military was for the war.
“I will try to link that to events that have happened since 1918, and if you’re in a first-person role, you can’t do that, you’ve got to stick to the role you’re in,” Allen said.
Allen’s table display includes eight or nine weapons, mostly rifles. The U.S. Army used all of them during the war, Allen said, because it did not have enough of its own.
When not behind a weapons display, Allen uses other parts of his uniform to explain the degree to which the U.S. military was not prepared for the war:
“This helmet, it’s the British helmet. Why? Because when we entered the war we had a hat. Hats are great, until you get pieces of metal hitting you in the head. See this gas mask? This was a British gas mask. We didn’t have a gas mask.”
He does not make the point for any political reasons, such as a defense of government military spending. He makes it to educate, calling himself a historian, not a politician.
“It’s probably the No. 1 thing people should know about the American experience in World War I because our unpreparedness would impact everything through the war,” Allen said. “How soldiers were equipped, how they were trained, how they were used, why we took so many casualties.”
Significance of World War I
Allen pointed out that in 18 months of involvement in World War I, the U.S. military took more casualties than in 10 years of the Vietnam War. According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, combining U.S. combat deaths, other deaths in the theater of war and non-mortal woundings, there were 257,404 casualties in World War I and 211,523 in the Vietnam War.
Visitors frequently ask about World War II, Allen said, because it had a greater impact on pop culture and national identity. They also ask why they should study World War I.
“Turn on the news, and you’ll see something that links back directly to World War I,” Allen said. “You don’t see that as much with other wars. ISIS — direct result of the end of World War I — problems with the border with Mexico … the budget … presidential power, it all links back to World War I.”
Allen came to K-State by way of Fort Riley after serving as a specialist in the 82nd Airborne and later the 1st Infantry Division. The 1st Infantry Division Band from Fort Riley is participating in today’s commemoration ceremonies in Kansas City, Missouri.
Allen said he wants to either work in a museum or as a teacher after he earns a master’s degree.
“History has always interested me,” Allen said. “I see history as the story of us, how we got here, what’s driving what we see.”