The 99th anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War I took center stage in my English 112 class on Friday, November 10. For more than a year, I have been preparing to guide my students on this journey through the trenches. I have read the novels, watched the films, bought the first editions, combed through the trench magazines, and immersed myself in the literature so that I could not only teach them how to research and write papers in three scholarly disciplines, but also engage them with the events that happened a century ago and cast deep shadows over the hundred years that followed.
We started the semester with Lewis Milestone’s 1930 film version of All Quiet on the Western Front, whose old-fashioned black-and-white frames retained their power and touched all but the most jaded students; many of them left class in tears after watching the final scene. Next, we heard a guest lecture by my colleague from the history department, Jessie Kiker, who provided an overview of the background, the causes, and the conduct of the war that was so unfamiliar to many of the students that when asked who the combatants were, one guessed Vietnam.
For their first major project, the students wrote a literature review in the social sciences, focusing on the scholarship about shell shock/PTSD over the last 100 years. Some of them stayed after school on a late Friday afternoon to watch Regeneration, the 1997 British film adaptation of Pat Barker’s novels about the famous doctor (W. H. R. Rivers) and patients (Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen) at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland. They even read articles by Rivers, became conversant with the symptoms of and varying cruelty of the treatments for the “war neuroses,” and experienced the torment firsthand in such poems as Owen’s “Mental Cases.”
We then moved on to the natural sciences, and the students each wrote a popular-science article about chemical warfare. They now know all about the short- and long-term effects of phosgene and chlorine and mustard gas–not only from the science articles they read, but also from the poets who experienced the green clouds and the smell of fresh-mown hay. And they have delved into the subsequent history of chemical weapons, including Agent Orange in Vietnam and the nerve agents deployed against the citizens of Syria.
We then took a break from research and writing to commemorate the end of the Great War. We began the week listening to a readers’-theater version of Not about Heroes, Stephen MacDonald’s play about the friendship between Sassoon and Owen, which began when they were both being treated at Craiglockhart. When the reading concluded on Friday, there were again few dry eyes as Sassoon told about hearing of his friend’s battlefield death exactly seven days before the end of the war.
We were joined by Thomas Person of Fayetteville’s Post 6018 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars; he explained the origin and significance of Remembrance Poppies and then presented the VFW’s version, a Buddy Poppy, to each member of the class as I read “In Flanders Fields” by Canadian physician Lt. Col. John McCrae, himself a war casualty. I showed the students my collection of materials about the war, including books, movies, magazines, and replicas of recruiting posters. My favorite items in the collection are a book and a postcard. The book is the first American edition of Her Privates We by Frederic Manning, my favorite of the first-hand novels by war veterans, and I read aloud the following passage from the beginning of Chapter III:
After rollcall a change had worked in them, the parade had brought them together again; and, somehow, in talking of their common experience they had mastered it; it ceased to be an obsession, it was something they realised as past and irrevocable; and the move to sand-pits marked a new beginning. They were still on a shoulder of the downs; and beneath them they could see Albert, and the gilt Virgin, head downwards, poised imminent above the shattered city, like an avenging wrath.
What was that gilt Virgin? I had wondered while reading, and I turned to Google, as I often have during this project, to enlighten me. It was the statue atop the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Brebières in Albert, France, which had been badly damaged in 1915 and still overlooked the fields as Manning and his fellow British soldiers marched to their various fates in the Battle of the Somme. I managed to find a contemporary postcard of the scene on eBay, and I showed it to the class as a fragile piece of war memorabilia.
The students browsed through the collection, ate cupcakes–poppyseed, of course–lovingly prepared by two of their classmates, and listened to the songs of World War I on Victrola recordings preserved for us through the wonders of YouTube: “Over There,” “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” “Mademoiselle from Armentières,” and “Pack Up our Troubles in an Old Kit Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile.”
I hope that this day of remembrance, this 99th anniversary of the Armistice signed at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, will be fixed in the memories of my students and all those who shared in our commemoration.
Now, the semester is almost over. For their final papers, the students will read a novel about Word War I. Some have chosen the well-known classics, All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms. One is reading the first volume of Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy. One has selected Mary Swan’s 2003 novella, The Deep, about a pair of sheltered and fragile twin sisters who go to France as volunteers ministering to wounded soldiers. Several have chosen The Officers’ Ward, Marc Dugain’s 1998 French novel about a hospital ward for officers suffering from facial trauma. And one is reading a novel I have only read about: Not So Quiet: Stepdaughters of War, published in 1930 by Evadne Price under the pseudonym Helen Zenna Smith. I am eager to read the student’s take on this feminist portrayal of the horrors of war through the eyes of female ambulance drivers on the French front lines.
After reading their novels, the students will place them in the context of their cross-disciplinary studies throughout the rest of the semester. Specifically, they will discuss what they have learned about World War I from a work of creative fiction–something, perchance, that could not be revealed through the very different lenses of the social and the natural sciences. If they have managed to see the war from these multiple vantage points–realized, that is, that true knowledge about anything requires multiple perspectives of left and right brain, mind and heart–then my work will truly be complete.