The sheer scale of World War I — its causes, destruction and aftermath — are too large to encompass in a single book or exhibit.
A centennial exhibition, "Over There! Montanans in the Great War," at the Montana Museum of Art & Culture found paths into those larger issues by going personal.
"In the process of visiting institutions and collections, it became apparent that we had some pretty remarkable stories to tell," said H. Rafael Chacón. The University of Montana art history and criticism professor guest-curated the exhibition over the course of the past six years.
The artifacts were drawn from private and institutional collections, including the MMAC's Permanent Collection, the Mansfield Library, the Rocky Mountain Museum of Military History at Fort Missoula and individuals like Hayes Otoupalik, who has one of the largest and most respected collections of WWI artifacts in the country.
Naturally, they chose someone who fought in the trenches.
Sidney Smith, a 25-year-old farmer from Madison County, was drafted and served as a doughboy. As a member of "The Lost Battalion," he fought during the bloody battle to secure the Argonne Forest in France, a pivotal moment for the U.S., Chacón said.
"It came at a huge, huge human cost. He was one of the survivors, and in some ways one of the victims. He had shell shock, and he described much later in life conditions that we would call PTSD," he said.
Smith was shot through his stomach, breaking two ribs, but continued fighting. He received a Purple Heart and a Distinguished Service Cross, which will be on display with his uniform, gas mask and other items.
More artifacts give some insight into the doughboys' service, such as a rifle outfitted with a shoulder armature and scope so they could shoot in the trenches without exposing themselves to enemy fire.
One byproduct of the war was the "trench art" made either during or after the war. Many of creators remain anonymous.
"Most of these soldiers spent hour and hours in the trenches waiting for something to happen. It was during that time that they made a lot of this stuff that's now called trench art," Chacón said. Some soldiers decorated the large shell casings that littered the battlefield with insignia. One of the most elaborate pieces in "Over There" is a lamp fashioned from one such casing. The lampshade is a helmet painted with a battle scene, including planes dotting the skies — one of the many novelties of the war.
"It was really the first technological war, with all this new modern machinery and on a huge, huge scale," he said.
William Belzer, a native of Glasgow, was one of the first pilots for the United States. His service is represented by his flight helmet, goggles and maps glued to board that he used on his reconnaissance missions.
Some of the U.S. propaganda and recruitment posters point to another facet of the war: the effort to recruit immigrants. One poster practically shouts, "Americans all!" with a list of surnames ranging from Greek, Irish, Russian, Spanish and more.
"One could argue that immigrants were Americanized through their service in World War I," Chacón said.
The MMAC has displayed works by Great Falls painter Josephine Hale from its permanent collection many times.
Artifacts of her service in the Red Cross during WWI are more rarely seen. Hale, who was widowed at a young age, was fluent in French. At 40 years old, she was five years past the cutoff for the Red Cross and lied to get in, Chacón said.
The exhibition includes her uniform, which has a faded patina of blood; her sketchbooks and notebooks, and artwork of the French countryside she made either during the war or in the 10 years after, when she lived in France.
James Watson Gerard, the U.S. ambassador to Berlin, isn't from Montana. However, a Treasure State connection helped land his artifacts in the Mansfield Library. Gerard's wife, Mary Daly, was an heiress to the Daly mining fortune.
According to Chacón, Gerard became a something of a celebrity after the Germans expelled him not long before the United States entered the war.
"Subsequently, he comes back to America and becomes the key PR man for the war effort," Chacón said. Drawing on his insight into German society during its run-up to the war, Gerard delivered lectures and wrote two books, one of which was made into the first of the big war films.
The final figure in the exhibition isn't really an individual, but a concept.
"We're treating 'The Enemy' more as an abstraction — the way Americans saw the enemy as this empire that stood for monarchy and imperialism," Chacón said.
The materials include hand-painted U.S. propaganda posters that vilify "the Hun."
" 'The Hun' was an embodiment of the evil German soldier, and that character was probably the most effective besides Uncle Sam," he said.
"The Germans hated it because it made them look like they were uncivilized brutes," he said. "They thought of themselves as the most rational, civilized country in Europe. They had a moral argument for winning this war. But this character, this bloodthirsty, cruel uncivilized beast, was the most effective way of demonizing the enemy."
Chacón considers the wartime photography of the Associated News Service as a form of propaganda. One wall will have framed U.S. pictures, and the other a slideshow of German images.
"Photography is a medium that can be manipulated easily, and they did it very aggressively on both sides of the war to present their arguments for why they deserved to win," he said.
This section does have a selection of artifacts to appeal to war buffs: a German grenade launcher and helmets. Keith Hardin, a private lender, has a selection of model tanks on display. A doughboy's hand-painted helmet and case show the primitive camouflage designs they made themselves before the military provided it.
Those items aside, the emphasis in "Over There!" remains on the art.
"We're trying to tell the story through the more personal side," Chacón said.