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Donation leaves World War I museum curators up in arms

Thursday, December 24, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST
Eli Paul, vice president of museum programs at the National World War I Museum, showed an Austrian Schwarlose machine gun from the World War I era that was part of a large private collection of machine guns and items related to machine gunners donated to the museum by the estate of Carl H. Hauber, whose widow decided her husband's collection was best housed in Kansas City.

KANSAS CITY — As Kansas City's Liberty Memorial has gained acclaim with its World War I museum, the flow of donated artifacts has also greatly increased.

But officials are reeling from the immensity of a recent gift from the widow of a lifelong collector. A semitrailer was needed to haul in the roughly 1,700 items, most of them related to the ferocious machine guns of that era.

"It was like getting a whole other museum," said Eli Paul, vice president of museum programs at Liberty Memorial.

It will take months, if not years, to fully absorb the material.

Just recently, archivist Jonathan Casey was astounded to open a German souvenir/reference album of color prints from shortly after the war with topographical views of the battlefields of the Western Front. Each has a rice-paper overlay showing the positions of various villages and fighting units. It is beautifully and meticulously assembled. And the Germans lost.

"Where also are you going to find this book?" Casey asked. "They're going to have one copy, maybe, in Germany."

Then there are the film negatives from a camera that was attached to an airplane-mounted "machine gun" and used by aviators for training purposes in mock dogfights. Liberty Memorial officials simply haven't had time yet to look at the images.

You might suppose it takes something special to get these history wonks excited. After all, a couple of years ago they acquired an actual World War I tank.

But they are greatly impressed by the collection amassed over the years by the late Carl H. Hauber, whose father served in the Great War.

"He collected like a curator," Paul said. "He was collecting the world of the machine gun — not just the object but the context."

Liberty Memorial now has not only a Russian Sokolov wheel-mounted machine gun but also the ammunition boxes that fed it and the shells it fired.

The donated items include hoses that collected the steam from water-cooled machine guns and the cans in which it condensed for reuse. Machine gunners couldn't let the steam escape because it would betray their position. There also are muzzles to conceal the flash coming out of the barrel.

The collection has chain-mail mitts and a chain-mail shoulder pad used by U.S. machine gunners because the barrels got hot. There's a German pocket calculator, with a level and a compass, used to calculate angle and range for mounted machine guns.

There's an Austrian soldier's tunic with the insignia and pom-poms indicative of a machine gunner. And there are German manuals on how to use the machine guns, which evolved rapidly as the war progressed.

Machine guns were among the innovative instruments of death that characterized World War I. The automatic rifle dated back to the Gatling gun and the American Civil War.

"But it found its full expression in World War I," Paul said.

Machine guns were largely responsible for the desolation of no-man's land. Each side could sweep the landscape — like windshield wipers — with guns firing up to 600 rounds per minute.

The Liberty Memorial had a respectable collection of machine guns and related material, but Hauber's items add greatly, including doubling the number of actual guns.

The private collector had an example of all but one of the World War I machine guns in the reference books, Casey said.

"We may be the best-armed museum in the country," Paul quipped.

Hauber had also acquired other war-related items, including postcards and photo albums filled with snapshots of everyday life at the front. There is even a program from the Folies Bergere.

Twenty-seven boxes of books will be cataloged and made available for scholars in the Liberty Memorial's research library.

Hauber's widow, R. Wanda Hauber of Naples, Fla., wanted to keep her husband's collection intact.

After she visited the Liberty Memorial last year, she decided that it was best repository for the artifacts.

They arrived in November.

Some objects in the collection will be added to the World War I museum, and some will replace items currently on display.

Others may be used in special exhibits, such as one planned for next year called "Man and the Machine: The German Soldier."

But officials have not yet had time to fully gauge the educational possibilities of their new treasure.

"Learning about this collection will take years," Paul said.

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