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4 Places to Discover World War I History

Memorial Monument - Somme American Cemetery

This year, Veterans Day is particularly poignant as we commemorate the 100th Anniversary of World War I.  While many of us recognize the startling images of World War II, the Great War from 1914-1918 remains a little more distant.  To gain some new understanding on this centenary, here are four of the best destinations for discovering World War I history.

World War I, High Wood cemetery, France

A poppy among the British and French graves from the Battle of the Somme at the High Wood Cemetery, France (Photo)

1) Museum of Military History, Vienna, Austria

Franz Ferdinand Death Car

Franz Ferdinand’s death car. There is a bullet hole on the rear passenger door near the handle.

To gain an appreciation of the tense state of European affairs at the turn of the century, the single event that triggered the Great War, and an overview of the fighting itself, one should start with the Museum of Military History (or the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum) in Vienna, Austria.

Front entrance to the Military History Museum, Vienna

Front entrance to the Military History Museum, Vienna (Photo: reivax, flickr)

Housed inside the city’s 19th century arsenal, the Military History Museum has a beautiful collection of artifacts from the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) to the presented day.  Exhibits explain the lead up to World War I and how the great imperial empires jostled with each other trying to establish economic and political superiority.  Military weapons and other technology are on display which demonstrate the early industrialization of combat.

Franz Ferdinand's death suit

Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s suit from the assassination

World War I began with the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in  Sarajevo in June 1914.   The Sarajevo rooms remain the most popular attraction at the museum with the “Death Car”, Franz Ferdinand’s uniform, the couch on which he died, and the murder weapon all on display.

2) Musee Somme 1916 – Albert, France

Musee Somme 1916 hallway and gun display

Gun display along the halfway at the Musee Somme 1916

For nearly all of the war, the two sides fought in miserable trench warfare to a virtual stalemate.  Underground bunkers, tunnels, and dirty trenches became miserable, long term forts for each side.  An extensive network of World War II air raid shelters in Albert, France has been transformed into the Musee Somme 1916 which recounts the history of the Great War in the region and in particular one of the bloodiest battles there, all while giving visitors a cold, claustrophobic sense for life in the trenches.

WWI somme winter trench diorama

Winter trench life diorama at the Musee Somme 1916

The underground tunnels of the Musee Somme 1916 are lined with display cases of information, maps, letters, weapons, and other artifacts.  While not the most convincing mannequins, life on the front is explained using dramatic scenes set up in rooms and alcoves.  Beside a pervasive sense of atmosphere and history from the artificially lit and low ceiling tunnels, the last section of passageways are dim and filled with machine gun and artillery sound effects!  (When we arrived at that section, there was another visitor waiting for us because he didn’t want to go through by himself.)

World War I trench art from France

World War I trench art from France. Artillery shell casings have been converted to vases.

My favorite part of the Museum was a very extensive collection of trench art.  With all this time on their hands hunkered down, many soldiers fashioned shell casings and other military waste into works of folk art.  Most of the pieces in the museum were donated or found by local residents.

3) “The White War”, Trentino, Italy

Monte Zugna, Vallagarina, Photo: Enrico Genovesi, Fototeca Trentino Sviluppo S.p.A.

Barbed wire fence on Monte Zugna, Vallagarina (Photo: Enrico Genovesi, Fototeca Trentino Sviluppo S.p.A.)

Receding snow has uncovered military equipment and personal effects lost 100 years ago and sheds new light on a forgotten and brutal front of the Great War.  Entrenched for three years along the Dolomites in Northern Italy, soldiers were more likely to die from the harsh winter conditions than from the fighting itself.  This “White War” was additionally cruel in that it forced the Austro-Italian inhabitants of the region to choose sides, splitting communities and families.

Fort Belvedere, Lavarone, Photo: Pio Geminiani, Fototeca Trentino Sviluppo S.p.A.

Fort Belvedere-Gschwent in Lavarone houses a World War I museum with recreated rooms as well as interactive multimedia exhibits. (Photo: Pio Geminiani, Fototeca Trentino Sviluppo S.p.A.)

There are 19 World War I museums, 80 forts, thousands of shelters, and miles of military trails and trenches throughout the Trentino region.  Visitors can walk the 500km long “Path of Peace” (or Sentiero della Pace) which connects these sights, silent ruins, and memorials.  Events and exhibits have been planned to commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War I and bring to life the stories of soldiers and their families.

Fort Dossaccio, Fiemme Valley. Photo: Giovanni Cavulli, Fototeca Trentino Sviluppo S.p.A.

It’s about a 2 mile hike to the restored Fort Dossaccio in the Fiemme Valley. (Photo: Giovanni Cavulli, Fototeca Trentino Sviluppo S.p.A.)

In addition to the history, the mountain landscape along the Path of Peace is breathtaking.  The Trentino region is one of the next places I want to visit, both to see the dramatic “battlefields” and to learn through the objects left behind about the local men who were lost on both sides of the White War.

4) Gallipoli, Turkey

gallipoli battle ridge

Part of the steep ridges along the ocean at Gallipoli

In an attempt to secure the Dardanelles and therefore access to the Black Sea, British forces launched an eight month campaign at Gallipoli, Turkey in 1915. Despite having a 3:2 personnel advantage, they made very little headway and we eventually forced to give up the objective.  Visiting Gallipoli and seeing the imposing ocean-side cliffs and exposed bay, you understand the extreme challenges faced by the British forces.

Lone Pine Cemetery, Gallipoli, Turkey.

Lone Pine Cemetery, Gallipoli, Turkey. Australian and New Zealand soldiers who died at the Battle of Long Pine in August 1915 are interred here.

Australian and New Zealand soldiers were the primary invading force at Gallipoli and suffered huge losses.  Pinned against the cliffs, they could make little headway into the Turkish position.  The string of Allied cemeteries along the shores are still frequently visited today by Australians who commemorate their country’s great loss.

Atatürk Anıtı (Memorial) at Conkbayiri, Gallipoli

Atatürk Memorial at Conkbayiri, Gallipoli. This marks where Mustaf Kamal was injured during heavy fighting. He went on to lead Turkey and is considered the father of the country (hence the honorary name “Atatürk”.)

Alternatively, defeating the superior colonial power of Great Britain at Gallipoli reinvigorated the Turkish elements of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. The hero of the battle, Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk), became a political leader and brought the nation through a series of modernizations giving rise to Turkey today.  It was amazing to see how crowded Gallipoli was with proud Turkish visitors remembering and celebrating a pivotal point in their history.

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