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100 years later, remembering December 1914 milestones of WWI

Soccer balls, wreaths and candles are left at the base of the newly inaugurated Christmas Truce monument in Messines, Belgium, on Dec. 6.
Soccer balls, wreaths and candles are left at the base of the newly inaugurated Christmas Truce monument in Messines, Belgium, on Dec. 6.
Published Dec. 15, 2014

A hundred years ago this month, World War I was five months along. When the fighting first started in late July 1914, many thought the conflict would be over by Christmas. Instead, the war would stretch for nearly four more years, until the November 1918 armistice.

St. Petersburg's contribution to the conflict, aside from its citizens who went to war, was minimal. Fort De Soto stood guard on Mullet Key, as it had since 1900. But the land war remained thousands of miles away.

Today the most visual local acknowledgment of "The War to End All Wars" is in Largo, at the Armed Forces History Museum. There, a rather remarkable, succinct display greets visitors with sight and sound.

First, visitors go past the Firearms and Ordnance display and past the Land Mines and Grenades room. Then they come to a set of double doors.

Behind these doors, World War I awaits.

Once through the doors, visitors are suddenly in a simulated trench, the sides reaching up nearly 10 feet on both sides with sandbags and breastworks. An Allied soldier stands atop boxes to fire over the lip of the trench. Farther down, a German soldier is at his machine gun.

To the right, a bunker is carved into the side of the trench; a field radio and its operator sit on display at a desk.

And overhead, the sounds of battle: Machine guns, rifle fire and exploding artillery shells fill the air.

Along the trench sides, display cases offer examples of trench life, from a mess kit to a wooden alarm for a gas attack. These are just a handful of the 100,000 objects in the museum's collection, with a greater emphasis on later wars.

A full, all-encompassing experience of World War I artifacts and memorabilia calls for a visit to the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Mo. The museum offers educational time lines, portraits of famous figures from the war era and extensive tableaus with objects and artifacts along with video and audio narratives.

Special emphasis is given to the American Expeditionary Force, which sailed for France in 1917 and helped turn the outcome of the war for the Allied side. One of the most poignant displays is a field of 9,000 red poppies, one for each 1,000 combatant fatalities, representing 9 million total.

As in all wars, there are unscripted moments that can make history. One such event happened in December 1914 when British and German troops spontaneously and cautiously emerged unarmed from their respective trenches on the Western front and began to exchange souvenirs and cigarettes. They sang Christmas carols and other songs. In some places, they reportedly even initiated a pickup soccer game with a makeshift ball.

"Some people say it happened in a lot of places, some people say it happened in just a few places," National World War I Museum spokesman Mike Vietti said. "But there are journal entries and letters from soldiers on both sides … that a truce occurred."

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It was called the Christmas Truce. And it angered officers and generals to such a degree that subsequent orders banned such fraternization.

To commemorate the historic event, a Christmas Truce monument has been erected in Messines, Belgium. The inauguration ceremony took place Dec. 6.

There were other, more conventional, December milestones of 1914. With aviation still in its infancy, the world's first bomber unit was formed by the Russians on Dec. 10, and the first German air raid on England, at Dover Harbor, happened on Dec. 21.

Even though there are no World War I artifacts on display at the St. Petersburg Museum of History, aviation provides a somewhat indirect link between St. Petersburg and World War I.

The celebrated Tony Jannus, after establishing the world's first commercial flight, from St. Petersburg to Tampa, on Jan. 1, 1914, began a short-lived air freight enterprise. It went out of business three months later.

By 1915, Jannus was in Russia, under contract to train Russian aviators, according to museum historian Nevin Sitler. On one such training flight over the Black Sea, "The plane had engine problems and crashed. Jannus and the two Russians were killed. His body was never found."

A video at the St. Petersburg museum recounts Jannus' achievements and his demise.

Contact Fred W. Wright Jr. at travelword@aol.com.

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