World War I trench offers a glimpse into a horrid past

HOUGHTON — World War I was a devastating war that killed an entire generation of young men. The total number of military and civilian casualties is estimated at 40 million, which includes 20 million deaths. Of those deaths, 9.7 million were military personnel and 10 million were civilians.

The reason for such numbers originated in a small town in Belgium, named Ypres. In the first of a series of battles there, which began on Oct. 19, 1914, the Allied armies found themselves under intense artillery shelling by the Germans. With nowhere else to go to escape, the Allies went straight down — creating trenches, which evolved into Trench Warfare. Life in the trenches became the subject of countless books and movies, as survivors tried to come to terms with the horrors of that war and the conditions of living in the trenches for months, if not years, at a time.

As the world prepares to recognize the Armistice that stopped the four years of fighting, Stanley Vitton and Kris Mattila, Civil and Environmental Engineers at Michigan Technological University, are creating an exhibit to do just that.

The exhibit features an actual winding trench dug several feet into the ground and spanning several yards on the campus green at the intersection of U.S. 41 and MacInnes Drive. The exhibit is multifaceted, featuring an acoustical installation simulating the sounds of battle designed by Christopher Plummer and Sound Design students (Visual & Performing Arts); looped recordings of memorial poetry and selections from soldier memoirs; and informative signage conveying historical facts about trench structure and trench warfare.

Sue Collins, associate professor of communications, culture and media at MTU, said the trench being designed is patterned after a firing trench.

“It’s intended to show what it might have been like to experience modern war,” Collins said. “including the vulnerability of being in a trench.”

The trench, she said, will be five feet deep, because to go any deeper would require internal supports, but there will be a berm along the edge of it, and a parapet to climb over.

Collins, who is the director of the event, which is a partnership between Michigan Tech, the Carnegie Museum, and Finlandia University, said prospective plans include a commemorative ceremony with the participation of the local VFW, American Legion groups, ROTC and Junior ROTC, which will include filling in the trench on Nov. 11, starting at 11 a.m. The Armistice took effect in 1918, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

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