Saturday, December 17, 2011

Life in the Trenches

At the Great War Association

Photo courtesy of Keith Rocco.

With flurries outside and Christmas rapidly approaching, I sit at my computer and reflect how good I have it. I am also reminded, however, of people who may not have such pleasant holidays, both past and present. As we approach the centennial of the First World War, I reflect upon the 1914 Christmas truce between British, French, and German forces. Such events give us the opportunity to view a time when soldiers sought humanity amidst cruel inhumanity. Recently, I had the opportunity to get a small taste of trench life and gain some insights into the plight of WWI combatants.

Early last month, I attended a World War I Tactical at the Caesar Krauss Great War Memorial Site in Newville, Pennsylvania. Maintained and operated by the Great War Association, a non-profit historical organization, the rural site consists of nearly 100 acres of rugged terrain consisting of trenches, bunkers, dirt roads, barbed wire, and artillery impact craters. Closed to most members of the general public, the event is referred to as an “immersive” experience by many of the approximately 500 reenactors who participate. Moving beyond a mere sham battle, events such as these rely just as much on strategic thinking, initiative, and historical knowledge. Most notably, special emphasis is given to the experiences of the common soldier – from the food he ate, to the wool socks he wore, and the desolately cold ditch he slept in. Minus live ammunition, few other aspects are overlooked in creating a sense authenticity and atmosphere to attain a slight taste for and a greater appreciation of the World War I experience.

The GWA site as seen from a WWI biplane. Courtesy the FSSF.

The first morning on site began relatively as a English film crew from the National Geographic Channel was on hand to film trench warfare scenes for an upcoming television program that will be entitled Combat Collectors. The show will examine Military History through those who collect and interpret its tangible remnants. Special effects were used throughout the weekend for both the show and the military tactical that followed. These included explosive charges in the ground to deliver the illusion of artillery shells smashing into the ground. One especially fascinating touch was the inclusion of multiple World War I era biplanes which “strafed” ground forces and engaged in dog fights only fifty feet above the ground. (The planes were so close to the ground on some occasions, many ran the other direction, honestly believing the aircraft was about to crash.) The scene offered an especially vivid and colorful dimension to the event. Also on site was noteworthy military history artist Keith Rocco, whose Napoleonic and American Civil War paintings are recognized by historians and collectors throughout the world. Portraying a civilian correspondent with the Chicago Tribune newspaper, Keith sketched trench art much like original reporters would have done in the era before cameras became more portable. A vast array of historical depictions was present, ranging from attendees who portrayed Black Watch in kilts and toting bagpipes, German Grenadiers, American Doughboys, French Zouaves, and foot soldiers in the Russian Expeditionary Force. Also present were a group of ladies who established a field hospital and portrayed Canadian nurses – with full sets of accurate medical equipment, cots, blankets, and amenities. Across from this hospital representation was a Salvation Army aid station that included a team of bakers and cooks who offered fresh biscuits, donuts, coffee, and care packages to passerby soldiers. One could even write a postcard back home to the “folks” to let them know that you were alright. I myself was enlisted in the Coldstream Guards within the contingent of the British Expeditionary Force division that was present.

Interestingly enough, the weekend also marked the anniversary of the 5th of November Gunpowder Plot by Guy Fawkes, thus resulting in a recitation of the Guy Fawkes Day Poem to the British troops present on the parade ground that evening. Being a participant in the numerous events throughout the weekend, I learned that such historically recreated activities are much more than games for many who actively participate in them. Such tacticals are a manner of commemoration and tribute in the eyes of those who take part. They bring the phrase “living history” to a new level by attempting to understand and even relive a portion World War One’s tumultuous circumstances and conditions. An on-site stone obelisk is surrounded by dirt from numerous Western Front battlefields. Part of the memorial simply states, “To All Who Served in the Great War.” And it is that sentiment that all of those who participate keep thoroughly in mind throughout their weekend experience.

Noted historical artist Keith Rocco was on hand throughout the weekend (here using a trench periscope). Creating sketches and trench art during the event, he hopes that many of his works will formulate into several new historical paintings. Should be great stuff as always!

This brief video captures some of the action of the weekend, including biplanes flying over.

The Lewis Gun was one of the most widely used machines guns of the First World War. Although more costly to manufacture than many other varieties of weapons, the gun was dependable and highly sought after by British troops especially. Photo courtesy of Keith Rocco.

Multiple WWI era airplanes were used throughout the weekend. Some aircraft were so close to the ground that I could see the goggles on the faces of the pilots. In the lower right, you can see the sign for our entrenched position - "Suicide Corner." Photo courtesy of Keith Rocco.

Some of our French allies on our extreme right as they brace themselves for a gas attack. (Note the masks they are wearing.) Armies utilized horrendous and fatal gases throughout the war, including Phosgene and Mustard Gas. If troops did not have a mask, they could use a cotton pack that was prepared with bicarbonate soda. Poison gas has since been outlawed by most countries, but more recent military actions (such as Desert Storm) and even contemporary events, still speak to the lethality and viable threats such weapons pose. Photo courtesy Keith Rocco.

Corporal Greg Goodell (right) takes some of the fellow green recruits and I (left) through the British manual of arms, which took some considerable practice for me to get the hold of! Other drills throughout our first day in the field included target practice (by both accuracy and speed) in addition to estimating distance with the bare eye. To my great surprise, I placed second out of the 100 or so British participants in the latter competition. Who would have guessed? Photo courtesy of Michael D. Fay, yet another accomplished military artist who was with us.

A great action shot by Michael Fay as National Geographic was filming a trench warfare scene.

Greg Goodell and college friend Floyd Nellet striking up a conversation in the trenches. This photo and all the following ones are courtesy of Michael D. Fay.

Another scene from the film shoot.

One always had to be very alert in the trenches. You could be chatting with your pals and munching on a biscuit when suddenly the No Man's Land to your front is swarming with Germans. There is little difficulty in becoming disoriented in the labyrinth of ditches and holes . . .

. . .especially at night. Following a quick dinner of beans and some additional duties, we marched the length of the Allied lines. At 2 a.m., I found myself in the middle of No Man's Land with four others as we covertly began constructing additional defenses and sandbag walls only yards away from the German lines. The night was crystal clear, bitterly frigid, and bright with a full sky of stars. (We saw a shooting star or two as well.) After a long day, we finally settled in for two hours of sleep in our bunker before our two mile counter march around the lines before sunset.

Here, I kneel at right before a nighttime patrol. In retrospect, we were up and about for thirty six hours before getting a decent night's sleep. Sounds like physical exhaustion, right? Well, our exploits paled in comparison to the real thing, where only two hours of sleep became a daily routine. But there were moments of levity as well, including a German soldier who crossed the lines bearing a small Christmas tree adorned with lit candles to convey season's greetings.

Dan Comes as a British Stretcher Bearer. For some great firsthand accounts and primary sources on stretcher bearers, medics, and ambulances, check out this website. During the event, Dan provided not only medical care, but period correct food and snacks to keep us going.

Breakfast in the bunker!

Private Jared Frederick, cold and tired, but ready for another day on the line. . .

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