Students dig deep into WWI lesson

October 10, 2003|by RICHARD F. BELISLE

GREENCASTLE, Pa. - Asking most Greencastle-Antrim High School freshmen what they know about World War I drew mostly blank stares Tuesday as they were digging replicas of the famous trenches that marked the conflict in France from 1914 to 1918, a war historians say was so bloody that it virtually wiped out an entire generation of European young men.

About the only thing students knew about the war was that the principals were England, France and later the United States on the Allied side and Germany, Austria and Hungary for the Central Powers.

The digging of two trenches at the Tayamentasachta Environmental Center Tuesday, representing each side in the conflict, was the "stepping-off point" of an intense 10-day history unit on World War I, history teacher Jeff Slatoff said.


The unit includes lectures, text readings and a viewing of the classic World War I film "All Quiet on the Western Front."

"By the time it's over, they'll pretty much know what happened," history teacher Randy Taylor said.

Derek Poper, 14, already had learned that the trenches never were dug in a straight line.

"They were zig-zag to cut losses," Poper said, explaining that when an enemy grenade or shell hit a trench, only the soldiers in the immediate area were killed or injured.

"That's why they were crooked," said Casey Walburn, 14. "The curves stopped the grenade blasts."

The students also learned that the trenches had to be deep enough to reach a soldier's armpits and had to be wide enough to allow two men to pass each other.

"We have to dig ours deeper. They don't reach our armpits yet," said Sarah Pryor, another ninth-grader.

Members of Bravo Battery, First Battalion, 1-108 Field Artillery, a National Guard unit from Chambersburg, Pa., were part of the first day's lesson at Tayamentasachta.

One difference between now and 1914 is the kind of ground protection used by modern soldiers. The National Guardsmen dug a foxhole to show how two soldiers can protect themselves and fend off an enemy, a far cry from the miles of trenches that snaked across the battlefields in France.

Taylor said the World War I unit reaches all freshmen students.

"A lot of different disciplines are involved in this," he said.

Art students demonstrate their skills by playing the role of artist correspondents assigned to cover activities on Trench Day.

Family and consumer sciences students cooked chili over open pit fires to feed those digging the trenches. They also baked hardtack - hard, dry biscuits that the WWI Doughboys referred to as teeth dullers and sheet iron.

Students in the introduction to technology class screen-printed the T-shirt "uniforms" worn by the trench diggers.

Technology class students using computers, digital cameras and Web-design software will create a multimedia presentation on the trench-digging.

Students also will build a replica of the type of periscopes armies on both sides used to check activity in the opposing trenches.

The ninth-graders will use their English skills by writing reflections on the daily life of World War I soldiers and read actual accounts written by soldiers. They also will read poems that came out of the war, including "Break of Day in the Trenches" by Isaac Rosenberg and "In Flanders Field" by John McCrae, a Canadian physician who died of pneumonia while on active duty in 1918.

The unit includes the study of maps of Europe before and after the war and lessons on its causes and effect on Europe, the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations.

The students will learn why the United States, then a nation of isolationists, got involved, and why President Woodrow Wilson said the U.S. had to get involved "to make the world safe for Democracy."

The four years of war claimed the lives of 8.5 million soldiers, including 112,000 Americans.

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