It was the Great War, the First World War, the "war to end all wars," and it began 100 years ago. "Great" it was, indeed, if measured in sheer size. More than 70 million soldiers fought in it, 10 million died in it, as did 7 million civilians. Lines on the world map were redrawn, its fallout determined events for a century and its impacts are still felt today.
How can we wrap our minds around something this great a century later?
Enter "Over There: Washington and The Great War." That's Washington, Conn., the bucolic Litchfield County town that played an outsized role in the conflict. To wit: more than 100 men and women from the town and more than 150 alumni and faculty from The Gunnery, a private academy located there, served in the war, which the U.S. entered in 1917. Three Washingtonians died in the conflict and town residents went to extraordinary lengths to aid the effort in Europe on the home front.
To honor one town's extraordinary war record and sacrifice, Gunn Memorial Museum has assembled a trove of letters, photographs, artifacts, quilts, sheet music, uniforms, medals, equipment, and art to examine the experiences of hometown soldiers, as well as those who participated on the home front. This is local history at its absolute finest, using one specific locality to open a window on an event that affected the whole planet.
The war was a first in other ways besides name: It was the first time tanks, planes, grenades, machine guns, barbed wire, and gas were used. In fact, the first thing you see upon entering the museum is "Gassed," a reproduction of a mural by John Singer Sargent, commissioned in 1918 by the British government to honor the Anglo-American alliance. Though something heroic was called for, Sargent witnessed a scene of soldiers who'd been gassed being led, blindfolded, to a hospital. "He changed his commission in midstream," said Gunn art director Chris Zaima. "He made sketches and took them back to his studio, and was inspired by Breughel's parable of the blind and [Rodin's] Burghers of Calais."
Gas, since banned by the Geneva Conventions, was the great unknown. "Chlorine gas took a couple of days to kill you, but mustard gas could take weeks," said Sandy Booth, Gunn exhibition designer. "They had gas masks but they'd vomit inside them, then take them off."
The war had another "first": the term "shell shock" was first used to describe what is now known as PTSD, and it was rampant. Much of the war was fought in trenches — 475 miles of which were carved into Belgian and French soil. But trenches only protected soldiers from bullets, not artillery shells and their relentless cacophony. "Just imagine what it was like to be bombarded 24 hours a day and not know if the next one would get you," said Booth, who in fact designed a trench for this exhibition. "Sooner or later, you'd crack."
Booth's trench is an exhibition highlight, transforming a hallway into a subterranean death trap and conveying the claustrophobic conditions under which soldiers fought. Inside these 10- to 12-foot-deep trenches soldiers hunkered down, carving alcoves inside which to sit or to escape the rats and mud. The trench is augmented with photographs by Joe West, a Washingtonian who traveled to the front as a member of the YMCA Motor Corps and, thankfully, always carried a camera with him.
Regardless of the horrors that awaited, young men were eager to go, even if they were partly prodded by conscription. A poignant case was Francis Seeley. Because he could not pass the physical exam, Seeley joined the Home Guard, but after a few months, he was cleared to go overseas. In a letter included in this exhibition, Seeley wrote, "I have been fortunate in escaping all injuries so far (Knock on Wood.)"
A month later, Seeley was hit by shell shrapnel at Verdun, lingered for two days before dying. His friend, Charles Morgan, wrote home, "Did I tell you that Francis Seeley has been injured? I don't believe it is serious…He has such a big heart…but I expect to see him back with the outfit soon."
People like Frances Hickox were the antidote to soldierly despair. Hickox was also in the YMCA Motor Corps. She was not a nurse, but a support person, helping set up canteens, makeshift churches and libraries, and providing a shoulder to cry on and helping soldiers write letters home. Hickox was affectionately called "Mother" by hundreds of soldiers, and her many letters home provide some of the most moving text in "Over There."
Then, in a category all his own, was Benjamin Foulois. One of the few experienced pilots in the American army (he learned to fly from Orville Wright in 1909), Foulois was put in charge of the "air service" for the U.S. military. He was, in essence, the whole U.S. air force.
All of this combines to weave a compelling narrative about one Connecticut town, but it is tucked inside the larger story of a "Great War" that is otherwise too distant in the past to have living witnesses. The only way, then, to get a grasp on its "greatness" is through exhibitions like "Over There."
"OVER THERE: THE GREAT WAR AND WASHINGTON" will be on view until Jan. 18, 2015. Gunn Memorial Museum, 5 Wykeham Road, Washington, Conn., 860-868-7756. The museum is open Thursday-Sunday; gunnlibrary.org
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