NEWVILLE — There is a patch of no-man’s land just southwest of Newville where the First World War still rages.
Twice each year, hundreds of living historians from across the country converge on what used to be a farm to re-enact the infantry tactics of a conflict that set the stage for America to enter the stage as a world power.
So much of what defines the United States today came out of that brief intense period from spring to fall 1918 when the Doughboys fought and died beside the French and British on the Western Front.
“Everybody should have an appreciation of our past,” said Jeff Holder, a World War I re-enactor. “It is the memory of our nation. If you do not remember your past, you do not remember who you are as a nation and a culture.”
Since November 1995, The Great War Association has maintained the property southwest of Newville as a host site for re-enactments that had drawn enthusiasts from as far away as Europe. Their events are not open to the public.
Currently of Dover, York County, Holder spent summer 1995 working with other volunteers to clear away overgrowth at the 88-acre site, so equipment could be brought in to start work on what became a half-mile system of trenches in western Cumberland County.
Shell craters, barbed wire entanglements and underground bunkers add to the realism of a landscape meant to build an understanding of a war that started 100 years ago this June 28 with the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
Recently, Holder was among the re-enactors who attended a recruitment day at the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center in Middlesex Township. He said hopes that with the anniversary comes a better appreciation for the conflict and its effect on U.S. history.
“We propelled ourselves onto the world stage with the Spanish-American War,” Holder said. “But World War I definitely reaffirmed us as being a world power by us entering and being part of the victory.”
Like other re-enactors of the era, Holder believes the American public has less of an understanding of World War I than World War II. He said there are a number of reasons for this.
From 1914 to 1917, World War I was largely a European war fought an ocean away from most Americans. Unlike World War II, there was no smoking gun like the attack on Pearl Harbor that drew the United States into a global conflict where there was a clear-cut good versus bad, said Travis Bard, a re-enactor from Lititz, Lancaster County.
In World War II, the Japanese attack combined with Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany created a moral crusade for the American people that was lacking in the First World War, said Alexander Falbo, a re-enactor from Glen Arm, Md. “Those two components made the axis of evil stark compared to Prussian militarism.”
Falbo said U.S. involvement in World War II took place earlier in that conflict and involved far greater casualties and greater mobilization at the home front supporting the troops compared to World War I. While growing up, Holder said he can recall meeting several World War II veterans, but he only knew of two World War I veterans — a great uncle and a man who lived in his neighborhood.
Prior to entering the war, President Woodrow Wilson campaigned on the promise of keeping America out of it, Bard said. He was following the will of the people who wanted to stay neutral.
“It was hard to get people on board with why you have to fight a war in Europe when they were not attacking us,” Bard said. “The thing that got the newspapers going against Germany was unrestricted submarine warfare. They were sinking American ships.”
“They billed that as the final straw,” Holder said. “There was also fear by economists that if the British lost the war, they were going to default on their loans.”
Bard mentioned how the United States also intercepted a secret transmission sent by Germany to a government official in Mexico asking for that country’s backing should America enter the war on the side of Britain and France.
“So they were not only sinking civilian ships, they were making back room deals,” said Bard, adding it was the politics of treaty obligations that caused the war in Europe to spin out of control.
For Americans heading overseas in 1917, U.S. involvement in the First World War became an idealistic crusade to save France, Holder said. “The French came to help us during our Revolutionary War. We were there to return the favor.”
When people think of World War I, they picture in their minds the stalemate of trench warfare along a static front with hardly any movement and a heavy loss of life.
While World War II battles by comparison seem more dynamic, so much of how that war was fought came out of the earlier conflict.
“The weaponry had outpaced the technology for advance,” Falbo said. “The trenches were there to save lives, to protect you from the bullets and artillery. They also created a problem because there were no flanks to expose. You had to punch through directly or create a weak spot.”
That need to overcome the strong defense prompted the early development of weapon systems and doctrine still in use today.
World War I saw the first use of tanks and aircraft in a tactical role. Technology that was experimental back then was perfected during World War II.
Re-enactment groups are often based on military units that actually existed. Both Holder and Falbo represent British Army soldiers of World War I assigned to the Engineer Signal Company of the 37th Infantry Division, which fought on the Western Front from 1915 to 1918.
Wartime necessity had that unit relying on a broad range of technology from the use of runners and carrier pigeons to relay messages to wireless communication that enabled the engineers to coordinate artillery strikes with reconnaissance aircraft flying over enemy lines.
Falbo chose to represent a British Army soldier because of his fondness of British culture. Holder did the same because he wanted to participate in re-enactments of the tactics that took place early in the war before American involvement.
“I was more of a tinkerer,” Holder said of his reasons for signing up. “My grandfather was a repair man. I got into the technology of it. My love of history and my ability to tinker with things all came together.”
As for Bard, he represents an American Doughboy assigned to Company L of the 109th Infantry Regiment of the 28th Infantry Division, the Pennsylvania National Guard. His unit was virtually destroyed in its first actions on the Western Front in the spring of 1916.
“It was one of the first lost battalions,” Bard said. “Several French units that were on either of them gave way and it ended up being surrounded.”
Part of his reason for becoming a World War I re-enactor was the lack of representation of soldiers from that era, even among hobbyists.
“Even though American casualties were light, there were 2 million Americans in France,” Falbo said. “There are bound to be people who had relatives who were involved in World War I.”