By Lisa Budreau, Ph.D.
This article appears in the Winter 2022 Issue of the Tennessee State Museum Quarterly newsletter.
As visitors enter the Military Branch of the Tennessee State Museum at War Memorial Building, a bronze plaque near the entrance serves as a reminder that without the dedicated efforts of state librarian and historian, John T. Moore, and his veteran friend, Captain George Wellington Beerworth, the Museum’s 20th century military collection might not exist. The plaque, erected in 1931, explains that while Moore conceived of the Museum’s World War I exhibit and inspired its realization, Beerworth devoted twelve years to collecting donations from military servicemen of 42 states and foreign governments. Beerworth also made another contribution to the Museum, that while grand in aspiration, was smaller in scale.
Canadian by birth, Beerworth was General Superintendent of the Nashville offices of the National Casket Company when he entered the British Army with the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914. He served with the Canadian Engineers in Arras, France, where he was badly injured. While recuperating, he built his first miniature scale model of the battlefield. In 1917, when the United States entered the war, Beerworth transferred to an American engineer unit where he served until the armistice in 1918.
Commemorative plaque reads, “Mankind taking things of God from the earth and turning them into destruction. THIS IS WAR.”
Captain Geo. W. Beerworth. (Tennessee State Museum Collection 3.562)
After World War I, Beerworth returned to France to survey a portion of the battlefield and construct several more models. Back in America, he worked for eighteen months to recreate a scale model of a portion of the famed Hindenburg Line, where Tennesseans in the 30th “Old Hickory” Division participated in the victorious breakthrough of this heavily fortified front line.
Made largely of paper maché and handmade figures, Beerworth and Moore worked tirelessly to exhibit the huge model throughout the 1920s. It took an entire railway car to transport it. All the while, they were raising funds and donations of war relics for the new state military museum at War Memorial, where until recently, a remnant of the model could still be seen.
Diorama when on display in the Museum's former location at the War Memorial, 1955–1965
(Tennessee State Museum Collection 2019.118.101)
The diorama as it is now known, originally duplicated a 50-acre battlefield to scale with German and allied trenches exactly as they would have appeared, with No Man’s Land between barbed wire entanglements with dugouts, machine gun nests, barriers and shell holes. Miniature soldiers and civilians, carved and painted in intricate detail, traverse a terrain of German concrete trenches, pill boxes and dressing stations. There is even an American cemetery complete with chapel and tiny headstone crosses.
After curating the state’s growing collection of World War relics, Beerworth died on February 9, 1941, of a cerebral hemorrhage. The captain’s legacy to his adopted state and to the men with whom he served lives on through the military relics that make up the robust collection of the Tennessee State Museum.
Lisa Budreau, Ph.D., is the Senior Curator of Military History at the Tennessee State Museum