For the final assignment in HIS230L, our J-term travel course on the history of World War I, students wrote a memoir of their experience. We’ve asked two students for permission to share what they wrote, starting with this post from Lauren Gannon ’17. Lauren, who is adding a History minor to her studies in Media Production and Graphic Design, refers at several points to one of the most famous memoirs of the war, Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, excerpts of which students read throughout the trip.
I sit in a coffee shop. The reading packet for the trip I am about to leave for in four days sits in front of me. The packet is open to the pages with the itinerary. The small table is cluttered with the reader, syllabus, coffee cup and the recently written notes for my site preview. A whisper of a smile is on my face as I read through the schedule for the first couple of days for the x-teenth time that day.
In fact, that smile has been on my face for weeks. Excitement occupies my emotions with the exception of the anxiety and fear that sneak in every once in a while. Leaving my family and going on the trip of a lifetime with a group of students that I barely know causes a little anxiety, but mostly, I am prepared to change. I am excited as well as nervous for the challenges this change will bring, but I am ready for it. Or at least I thought I was.
So long as I am in the world, how can I ignore the obligation to be a part of it, cope with its problems, suffer claims and interruption? (Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth)
“Did you notice that that’s Big Ben right over there?” asked Anne-Britt as we stood in Trafalgar Square on our first full day in London. I looked down the road, and in a sun-kissed haze, I saw it. We were there! We were in a place that I had only dreamed about! My excitement was only heightened as our class began and my emotions seemed to match those of the people who celebrated Britain’s entrance into the war one hundred years earlier. Although it was a different kind of excitement, it was excitement. I found myself with seemingly boundless energy for the long walking tours and memorial visits that day. I was taking in as much as I could every second.
This attitude continued throughout the week as I got to know my professors, their wives, and my fellow classmates. I really did feel like a soldier, but a soldier headed to a much better place than war, bonding with my commanding officers and fellow soldiers. We were all in this together.
We were only a couple days into the trip when we went to the Imperial War Museum. That was the day that I experienced the reality of what we were there to learn about: war. Although we had seen memorials and monuments for those who fought in the Great War, I had yet to absorb all the knowledge I could about the war itself. The WWI exhibit in the museum was fantastically arranged. As I walked through, I could spend as much time as I needed learning about the different aspects of the war in an interactive way. I will never forget the moment that I heard the simulated gunshots and explosions coming from one of the displays and was completely terrified.
The First World War in particular had always seemed so far removed for me, existing only in textbooks. Suddenly, here I was in a place that was deeply impacted by it and much closer physically to where the fighting actually occurred. How was I supposed to handle actually walking through preserved trenches when I was impacted so much by a display in a museum? I was not sure, but, yet again, I felt a connection to the soldiers. They left home excited to fight, only to be completely disillusioned by the horror that is war. I left home excited to learn and be changed, only to find myself unprepared for what that entailed. Free time helped to lessen the anxiety, but I could not help but feel anxious about the uncertainty of how the rest of the trip would affect me.
After being in London for a week, we took our first day trip as a group to Oxford. Here was where I found my deepest connection. Vera Brittain was a student at Oxford when the war broke out. Her brother, fiancé and friends went to fight, and she was left behind. Although she had a place at an esteemed university, which was rare for a woman in this time, she left to become an army nurse and be a part of the event that would define her generation.
Although I was finding some connection to soldiers during the war, I felt the strongest connection to Vera Brittain. Her situation, her interests, her temperament, all reminded me of myself. We read a lot of excerpts from her in our reading packet, and as I read those, I found myself nodding and understanding exactly what she was saying and why she was saying it. Her recollections of the women she attended college with and their intentions reminded me of my own university in a lot of ways. I was frustrated by a lot of the same things she was and sympathized with her desire to do more than stay behind and learn while she could be a part of something bigger. Brittain’s writings and life story would shape how I viewed the war for the rest of the trip.
By the end of our time in London, my expectations for the trip had already been shattered. Overall, I was not finding the connections or changing as I had expected. I wrote in my journal my only solution: “be as close as possible.” I was learning that I could only expect to get so close before I expected to travel through time to actually be there. What I was experiencing would have to be enough, and it would be as long as I was striving to get as close as possible.
Belgium and the Western Front
After my realization in London that I would not be actually living WWI, the Western Front became more of a study of remembrance rather than a study of the actual war. I learned about the battles and strategies from Carl and Lucas [our local guides], but the one thing that Carl said that I do not think I will ever forget is that “every headstone, each name has a story.” As we walked through cemeteries and visited memorials, the massive number of names and headstones struck me. So many people died in a war that was supposed to be quick and relatively easy. How do we remember them? We put their names on memorials and maintain cemeteries. Even those who were unidentifiable after they died had a place to be remembered. Not only are they remembered there, but also they are remembered by anyone who visits. I visited and I know that I will remember them. That is how I can be connected. I can remember my personal experience with where they live on for all to see.
Again, I was impacted in an unexpected way. I was faced with the actual terrain on which many soldiers died and are still being found, but it did not feel that way. Although after London I was expecting to feel like this, I was still disappointed. I felt farther removed than I had been in London and I did not know why. Why was I finding it so difficult to feel empathetic to the soldiers’ experiences? I still did not know. Vera Brittain puts into words how I felt on the Front when she says, “on the whole it seemed safer to go on being a machine.” I felt as though I had no other choice if I was not satisfied with my reactions than to continue in the same manner, to go through the motions and hope that something changes.
Paris was surreal at first. After such long and tiring days, we were in the city of love and lights and I was only a little bit excited. In fact, I think I was mostly relieved. The exhaustion of the trip must have been getting to me because I felt weary and discouraged, but was ready to begin another leg of the journey. It was not until the expats tour that I felt excited and encouraged again.
Paris has a knack for feeling timeless, so as we travelled through the streets and visited the cafés and restaurants that Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald frequented, I felt as though they might as well have been there yesterday. My connection was back. It was affirmed when I went to the Shakespeare & Company bookstore and bought a copy of A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway that had a picture of him in front of the store on the cover. I felt my energy return and my excitement rise. I was encouraged. Again, it was not what I expected, but I was not about to complain.
Our time in Paris came and went so quickly that it felt as though I had blinked and we were departing to our last stop of the trip: Munich. Munich brought some anxiety to my experience. The modern urban feel of Munich was unsettling considering all that occurred there after the war, like the rise of Nazism. All that stood to remind those in Munich was a monument laid into the land in front of an official building that featured a sleeping soldier. However, I found this memorial to be the most memorable because it was different from everything else we had seen in London, Belgium and France. It gave a message of hopeful return. Germany was not defeated after World War I; they would rise again.
Being in Munich was eerie when we discussed Hitler and Nazism. I found it interesting that such a beautiful place would have been a home to such horrifying ideals. Then just outside of Munich silently sits Dachau, the manifestation of these ideals.
The day we went to Dachau was the day that I had been most nervous about. Before we went in, Sam said, “Let yourself be affected by it.” As much as I took those words to heart, I think that I unintentionally put up a wall. I was affected to an extent, but again, not to the extent that I was expecting or hoping. I found myself just walking through the yards and paths, thinking. What I thought about, I’m not exactly sure. All I know is that I walked from one place to another just thinking. It was heavy, that much I remember, and I do not handle heavy very well.
My connection to that place, besides this trip, is one that I hope I never find. I think that Dachau affected me in a way that I will learn as I grow and learn. I hope to one day understand exactly what I was thinking about in reaction to what I saw, but I do not think that that day will come soon.
I sit in a coffee shop. My notebook in front of me, my pencil in my hand, and all of my notes and reflections scattered across the table with my whisper of a smile on my face. I work through frustration and confusion before I realize the roots of it.
Who am I? Who am I in history? How do I connect to the big picture? What is my responsibility when it comes to the experiences I have had and the knowledge I have acquired? Who am I?
I’m not sure that I will ever know the perfect answers to all of those questions, but what I do know is that I am me and only I am me. No one else has had the exact experiences that I have had. So, nobody will be able to understand exactly what I have lived or how I have experienced the world, just like I will never know exactly what a soldier in WWI lived or how Vera Brittain experienced the world. However, I do know what I experienced, felt, and learned, and I am willing to share that with anyone wanting to know.
What is my responsibility? My responsibility is to live, remember, and share my experiences because that is all I have and know for sure. It’s all anyone has. I have my own portion in the big picture and it’s my responsibility to paint it. If I don’t, who else will?
– Lauren Gannon