Study of trench art reveals history

It was hard to make out the last letter due to damage on the shell casing. M-I-H-I-E...?   On another shell casing they saw the letters “R A R.” The cool, burnished brass on one artifact showed a flower carved into raised relief. Another included a stylized figure blowing a trumpet  with flags all around. What’s the story here?

Students in Mr. Eric Wentworth’s 20th Century Conflict class recently had the opportunity to learn more about very special artifacts loaned to them by South Otselic resident Darrell Fox. These were examples of “trench art,”  decorative objects made by military service personnel, sometimes while waiting long hours in literal trenches. Trench art can be found from numerous wars, but the practice flourished in WWI. 

This small collection originally belonged to Charles Grover Allison, Fox’s great-great-grandfather, and their study opened doors to a deeper understanding of a unique time and place. 

“I like how it brings history back to life,” explained junior Cody O’Hara.

Students were invited to look closely at the art and memorabilia, and search for clues to tell them more. “Is there anything on the bottom?” Mr. Wentworth asked. “What do you notice?”

After small details were uncovered, digital sleuthing was required to find and dig into online sources. “This is different from actual class work,” said senior Joe Roodenburg. “It’s really cool to have hands on history.”

Soon, things became clearer through investigation.

The Battle of Saint Mihiel was a major event fought September 12-15, 1918 in northeastern France, students discovered. It was memorialized on the largest piece of trench art loaned by  Mr. Fox. The American Expeditionary Forces and 110,000 French troops under the command of General John J. Pershing pushed against German forces there, and prevailed. This battle also marked the first use by the Americans of the terms “D-Day” and “H-Hour.” George S. Patton Jr. also trained 2 tank battalions used in this battle, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism that day.

“RAR” stood for Railway Artillery Reserves, which used long-range naval guns as part of the increased mechanization of armed warfare. Railway batteries assigned to the RAR of the First American Army were used in support of the war effort by both American and French forces.

While this unique opportunity to discover history in new ways helped students expand their understanding of WWI, there was more.

“Students decided they wanted to do more to support our military,” explained Mr. Wentworth. “They decided they wanted to raise money for veterans dealing with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) so we’re having a coin drive called “Making Change for Vets.” 

Post-traumatic stress disorder affects 20% of  veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan, reports the RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research. The Mayo Clinic describes PTSD as a mental health condition triggered by either experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. The disorder can arise years after the event, and can be manifest through intrusive memories, avoidance behaviors, negative changes  in thinking and mood, and changes in physical and emotional reactions. Combat exposure is among the most common events leading to PTSD.

Wentworth reached out to local and state veterans administrations, and is in talks with the Director of the Binghamton Veterans Center to ensure funds raised will go to a program that specifically helps veterans with PTSD. Donations are being collected in change jars at school. 

The 20th Century Conflict class is, at the end of the day, about understanding history and coming together to do something. Ninth grader Kameron Marshall explained: “It’s fun to talk with classmates who all like history. I like how we get to talk  about things we are all interested in together.” 
For more information about "Making Change for Vets," contact  Mr. Wentworth at [email protected]

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