World War I Journal: Battlefields

Our World War I group is more than halfway through its J-term in Europe. As we continue our stay in Paris, we’re all still thinking about our four days at Ypres, the Somme, and Normandy, three of the most important battlefields of the 20th century.

Here I’m happy to share two reflections written by Graphic Design/Studio Art major Anna Solomon during that stage of the trip. She started by thinking about the first stop on our Ypres tour: the British cemetery at Essex Farm, where a Canadian doctor named John McCrae wrote one of the most famous poems of WWI. Then Anna reexamined her impressions of the First World War after seeing sites from the Second.

London’s Tower Bridge
Tower Bridge, London. All photos in this post by Anna Solomon – used by permission

Wednesday, January 9, 2019 – Going from the bustling metropolis of London with its energy, charm, fun, comfort, weather, and familiarity to Ypres was a meaningful experience. Ypres is quiet, solemn, open, quaint, moving (emotionally), cold… and home to some of the most remarkable experiences of the trip. Seeing where “In Flanders Fields” was written was humbling. I’m having trouble wrapping my mind around the gravitas of these places. I feel like I want to cry (I kind of have a few times), but that’s good because it means it’s important. Even though my great-grandfather was the one to fight here and not me, these sites are giving me a connection with a war I never fought and a man not even my grandfather knew.

Essex Farm was also impactful because we saw workers [from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission] maintaining the graves. Seeing them serving and interacting with the site in that way was striking. Watching them tend the grounds they seemed like gardeners of honor and ghosts of the past. The war still means so much to them, as does the conservation of these sites and of the sacrifices of the past. Here history walks the grounds and shakes me to my core.

Grave of an unknown WWI soldier

Saturday, January 12, 2019 – …at the WWI sites I felt distraught and bitter about the war. My great-grandfather’s dog tags and victory medal felt impossibly heavy on my mind and in my pockets. My eyes would tear up thinking of how brutal and awful a war it was. The WWII sites at Normandy, however, felt different, and it quite frankly made me ponder why I felt that way. At the beaches and bunkers I felt excited… maybe because this seemed like a place and a war where Americans were heroes, the good guys; we were victorious. In movies and TV shows I’ve heard about these events, and it’s exhilarating to be in the place where they happened. The feeling of this being a glorious war swiftly faded upon contemplation. What horrors were seen and committed here… how many lives were lost here… what a different world this would have been to live in and through… what a haunting legacy.

Arromanches home, with Gold Beach in the distance
Arromanches-les-Bains, France… with remnants of the temporary “Mulberry harbour” on what used to be Gold Beach

On Wednesday we’ll take the train to Munich, where we’ll conclude our trip by studying some of the most important legacies of the First World War: the rise of National Socialism, the start of a second world war, and the radical evil of the Holocaust. Look for a final set of student reflections next Tuesday or Wednesday.

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