A week of posts on our recent World War I travel course concludes today with these reflections from Anne-Britt Mulberry ’00, who accompanied her husband, Prof. Sam Mulberry, on the trip for its first two weeks. Anne-Britt had a unique perspective: not only an alum and faculty spouse, but a former student and TA in HIS230L back when it was taught on-campus by Profs. Neil and Virginia Lettinga…
In January of 1997 I took the J-term WWI class, taught by Professors Neil and Virginia Lettinga at Bethel College. (It was still ‘college’ back then.) I knew this class was different from most when ten minutes in we were marching and bellowing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.” It quickly became one of my favorite classes I had at Bethel.
So much so, I became a teaching assistant for the course in 1998 and 2000. Not only did I learn about the war, but I was immersed in the culture of that era. Unlike many history classes I took at Bethel, WWI spanned a very short number of years. Because of this, the class was able to delve into a cultural breadth that was unique: we sang songs, contemplated visual art pieces, fashion, recipes, and politics of the era, and read poems, journals, and other writings by soldiers, politicians, mothers, intellectuals, suffragettes, and others. It was a rigorous class with a lot of reading and writing. (When I became a TA, I helped grade many papers for the class of seventy plus, which helped later on when I became a seventh grade history teacher.)
But more than the overall knowledge I gained about WWI, the class also helped shape the way I felt about duty, war, nationalism, and what my response to those ideas as a Christian should be.
Eighteen years after taking the class for the first time, I was able to accompany the WWI class to Europe. I wondered what I would remember from my college class, what new things I would learn, and what differences I would experience. I quickly realized what a difference seeing the places, monuments, and graves would have on my overall sense of WWI.
The first day in London, students had a scavenger hunt that led them to Trafalgar Square. As we gathered, we were asked to read a firsthand account of the declaration of war, which described the gathering throng of pro-war supporters at Trafalgar Square. Standing there visualizing this event, I was struck with an understanding I did not have previously. Even though in my college class experience we explored the reasons why people wanted to go to war, I still found the lust for war dumbfounding. I kept thinking I would be smarter that these people to get suckered into such a bloody conflict. I’m not sure if this is mostly the result of age, or how much of it was simply standing in that very square, but I finally understood why many felt the way they did.
This happened over and over again throughout the trip. My previous knowledge and understanding of WWI constantly expanded, especially in empathetic and emotional ways.
There were differences between the abroad experience and the classroom. The abroad class focused primarily on the European experience of the War, specifically the Western Front, whereas the traditional classroom experience was able to spend more time on America, the Eastern Front, and other parts of the world during the war. Another difference was the ability to draw in other references. For example, in the classroom experience we had about 30 different slides (yes, they were slides!) of art that were chosen from all over the world to help us understand the intellectual and philosophical shift during this time. In the abroad experience we went to several art galleries to actually see first hand some of the same pieces and additional pieces from the era. Both experiences I gained a better understanding about the art and intellectual world from this era, but the experience was very different.
I went mostly because it meant getting to travel to Europe. I have visited London and Paris in the past, and loved both cities. Having taken WWI before, I knew I would enjoy seeing firsthand some of the things I remembered seeing and reading about. I did not enter into this experience expecting something life-changing, but that is what I got!
A major theme of the class was remembrance. As we walked through cemeteries and past memorials in England, Belgium and France, we were asked to think about what we choose to remember in our culture and how we remember it. This led me to think about how I choose to remember events and people in my life, and in my world. The experience also made me contemplate my choices and my courage to live out my convictions as a Christian in our world. I am still contemplating lingering questions and convictions this experience had me wrestle with.
I was also surprised to discover how emotional the war became for me. Whether it was in an art gallery, on a busy street looking at a monument, walking through a trench, or in a cemetery viewing row after row after row of nameless graves, I was often overcome with a new sense of the enormity and the impact the war had on so many lives.
In the end, it’s difficult for me to choose one thing about the trip I enjoyed the most. The lame (but true!) answer would be to say all of it, so I won’t do that. But I will say two things:
My favorite thing that I experienced in terms of the class was the three days in Belgium and northern France, where we spent time traveling to memorials, monuments, battlefields, and cemeteries. Contemplating memorials from Canada, South Africa, Wales, America, Australia, France, and many other nations as well as seeing graves of men from places like Germany, China, and India was an amazing, sometimes overwhelming experience. I was able to truly appreciate how indeed the world was consumed with this war. Also, being able to see the devastation and change of the land 100 years after the war was jaw dropping. Viewing the craters, bunkers, and trenches that are still part of the Belgium landscape is rather indescribable. There was one experience in particular where we walked up a hill in Belgium to a serene, beautiful wooded pond. The sun was setting in the distance, and there was a perfect, still image of the surrounding trees, brilliant sky, and birds in the reflection of the pond. As we sat there as a class, wondering why we were there, our tour guide explained that the land we were standing on and the pond was created by the Allied forces mining under the hill and blowing up the top where German forces were positioned. We sat there a while struck with the beauty and knowing the violence and death that created it.
The other thing I most enjoyed and was surprised at was the wonderful relationships I was able to form with the class. Being the wife of one of the leaders, I wondered if I would be able to really get to know the students. I soon discovered that our experiences together helped form a close bond. Even though there was free time spent apart, there was a lot of time spent together exploring the city, traveling, eating meals, playing games, and talking at our hostel. The relationships that we formed there have continued here and I am so thankful for them.