A Meditation on Studying "The Great War" on the Western Front

In the spirit of the centenary of the Armistice, I wanted to write about how influential the study of this period of history was for me when I did a study abroad course on the sites of the Western Front in 2001.  The course was designed by a professor I had come to respect greatly, and I had taken multiple courses from on campus.  Dr. Mark Facknitz had been working on the course for awhile, and during the summer between my third and fourth year at JMU as an undergrad, he began recruiting.

Study abroad programs did not interest me, because what I’d heard was that there was a lot of shopping, visits to tourist-traps, and unnecessary drama between the students. But when I saw what Dr. Facknitz was working on, I decided I wanted to go, and began saving my money hard.  I worked three jobs on top of the eighteen credit hours I was taking that semester.

The program itself was great.  In London, we did more of the historic background study, and then visited the sites in France and Belgium.  We read Wilfred Owen and we visited the British War Museum.  We stayed in small towns that had bullet holes from fire fights that had never been repaired from either WWI or WWII.  We went to Verdun and stayed a few miles west of Ypres, going in to town for last post—a very moving experience as the trip was wrapping.

But the museums were not where most of the learning occurred.  Seeing the wreckage of the forts destroyed, like De Vaux, or the Citadel, makes one question the decision of the Maginot Line post-war.  And visiting places like the Cave of the Dragon, where there was a wall erected within the cave which separated both the Allies and the German forces seeking shelter, where the troops would say things like, “Hey Jerry, got a match?” or “Tommy! Got a cigarette?” well, it makes one wonder about the nature of war.  There would also have been taunting in that cave as well, I’m sure.  I can also imagine at night, someone shouting “Good night Tommy!”

During this trip it was also the first time I heard about the Christmas Truce of 1914 when the soldiers on both sides gave up the fight and spent Christmas together despite being officially at war.  There were even football games held between the Germans and Allies.

On one location, I found a large, unexploded artillery shell in the woods.  Someone from a logging truck had probably found it in the muddy path and blithely moved it aside so that they could proceed.  Evidently, there are still as many as ten deaths each year from unexploded WWI artillery in Europe.  The farmers often place these explosives at crossroads for the appropriate bomb pickup and disposal to occur. I saw one crossroad where there was a statue of the Virgin Mary, and beside her were two small artillery shells waiting to be picked up.  At the Vimy site, they have areas fenced off from visitors because of unexploded ordinance.  Sheep roamed inside—low cost minesweepers.  They’ve done the same thing in some places in Vietnam, only they use cows there. 

But one thing that really drove home the importance of place, was when we visited Mametz Wood, a location where the Welsh had fought.   There is a column with a red Welsh Dragon atop it clutching barbed wire.  That spot marks the Welsh line.  It faces a cluster of trees.  That was where the German machine gunners were.  Between the two was No Man’s Land.  I looked across, it may have been the length of an American Football field—a short walk on a good day for sure.  The ground was now a potato field, and had seed potatoes that had just been placed.  The dirt had areas of light khaki, almost white from chalk deposits.  From the Welsh line it made the field look mottled.  After having heard the history of the place, I decided to walk from the Welsh line to the knot of trees, using my thoughts to play ghost in history.  It felt strange to walk so freely over land that had been destroyed by firepower and soaked in the blood of men. 

There is much more I could write about visiting those sites.  But I won’t.  Not now.  The legacy of war and battle is plastic.  It changes with every conflict.  I think of how WWI is regarded in Europe versus here, then I think of how WWII is regarded here.  I think of Korea, Vietnam, the wars in the Middle East.  They’re all different in how they’re perceived.  And, really, one thing to remember, amid all the stories of death and endangerment is that Veteran’s Day (in the US) is about those who have been able to tell us these stories, and come back from those situations.  A veteran’s service is a complex thing that they have given some or all of their life to.  We should remember that.

One final note, and I think it worth adding despite my claim of wrapping discussion on my Great War studies.  At the end of my trip, as we headed back, the poppies were in bloom in Flanders Field.