Sally Keithley-McCulley shared a room with her sisters in Norfolk, England. Every morning of her childhood, she woke to see a photograph hanging over the bedroom’s fireplace: her father, in his World War I British soldier uniform, standing next to a horse.
A few weeks ago, Keithley-McCulley, now 91 and living in Shawnee, saw that the National WWI Museum and Memorial wanted people to vote on a favorite poster for its upcoming exhibition “Posters as Munitions.” She knew she wanted to participate.
She’d vote for the poster depicting the horse, of course, because her father had trained horses in WWI. But Keithley-McCulley doesn’t have a computer. She says she thought: “I was real proud of my father, so I’ll write a letter.”
Hers was one of 1,800 votes, 70 percent of which favored the horse poster.
Doran Cart, senior curator of the National WWI Museum and Memorial, wrote back to Keithley-McCulley and they eventually spoke by phone. He calls her a “delight.”
“On winter evenings we’d sit around the fireplace,” Keithley-McCulley remembers. After the family played a few games, she says, “he would just sit and talk to us about the horses. He didn’t ever really say much about the Army. He joined the Army at age 18, in 1914.”
She was very young hearing those stories, so she has to defer to Cart for the majority of facts about the horses in WWI.
According to his research, many of the horses and nearly all of the mules used by the United States came from Harrington and Guyton, a massive livestock farm and dealership based in Lathrop, Mo. The animals were mostly used for transportation. Soldiers would ride them, or sit atop them to guard prisoners, or they’d pull carts, and often they’d haul large pieces of artillery. Cart says they were rarely used in battle after some early clashes in 1914.
It was no surprise to Cart that the horse poster won.
“Human beings had a choice of being in the war, but the animals did not,” he says.
The poster was created by the British Blue Cross Fund and reads: “Please help the horses.”
“Here’s basically ‘We want to help these wounded horses,’ and I think it struck a chord with voters. Most people can relate to animals. They can’t necessarily relate to a French soldier, but they can relate to a horse,” Cart explains.
Keithley-McCulley’s father wasn’t a veterinarian, but he helped heal the horses when they came back injured. And it was a horse who saved him from going to France to fight: One strong kick broke her father’s leg.
She says he “didn’t get” to go to France, as if he missed out. But, Keithley-McCulley begged to join the British army when World War II erupted, so hers is a different view of war.
She was 16.
“Being patriotic the way I was — we were all patriotic back then — I was afraid that the war was going to be over before I could join up,” she says.
She lied to the recruiter and said she was already 17 and a half, the age a parent could legally give consent for enlistment.
Her parents initially said no, but she nagged at them for so long they relented. She served in signals for three years all over Great Britain and loved it.
“Taking messages over the wireless and writing them down and handing them to the commanding officer or whoever happened to be on duty — to me I was really doing something great," she says. "Everything had to be secretive. They used to drum that into our heads: You don’t know who you’re talking to.”
She recalls a poster in their barracks that showed a big face with an index finger to its lips that read: “Be Like Dad: Keep Mum,” to remind them not to talk.
Cart says most of the posters in his exhibition, all of which were produced in 1917, the year the U.S. became involved in the war, were aimed at mobilizing civilians.
“There are a few posters that were used as propaganda — not all posters were propaganda, most were plainly informational — propaganda was generally aimed at your own populace, not at the enemy. You’re trying to convince your own people how horrible the enemy is. That’s generally how that was used.”
That was Keithley-McCulley’s experience of posters in WWII. She says people saw them all the time and talked about them.
“You’d look at them and you’d read them and, ‘Oh, that makes sense.’”
Of the 29 donated posters included in the exhibition — the posters represent all the “major players” in the war — a few stand out to Cart.
“One message is: ‘What kind of society do you want to live in?’ And another is: ‘What are you doing to support the war effort?’ Some are blatant that if you’re not helping with the war effort, you’re against the country.”
He says the French posters are the most brutal, depicting German soldiers as monsters. But one French poster is his favorite. It’s a sort of sci-fi take on the war machine, and at five feet long and three feet wide is the largest of the collection.
“It’s this crazy-looking vehicle that’s 30-feet high going across the battlefield,” he says. “Basically saying to win the war with new modern machinery.”
As for his new friend Keithley-McCulley? She’s had enough of machines, which is why she doesn’t own a computer now.
She not only worked with technology in the army, but for 45 years as a civilian in one capacity or another.
“They’re not going to be my boss anymore,” she says.
Her feelings are borne out by voters, as Cart can attest. It seems that most people will take a noble steed over a futuristic machine any day.
“Posters as Munitions, 1917,” opens February 21, 2017, and continues through February 18, 2018 at the National World War I Museum and Memorial 2 Memorial Drive, Kansas City, Missouri, 64108, 816-888-8100.