Cold lessons of trench warfare: Teens simulate combat in WWI re-enactment
By BRIAN ALBRECHT | The Plain Dealer, Cleveland | Published: January 20, 2018
KENT, Ohio (Tribune News Service) — Chilling cries of "Attack!" mingled with shrill whistles in the cold morning sun Thursday as German troops stormed snow-covered French fortifications – World War I style.
Armed with homemade cardboard pistols, rifles and machine guns, ninth-grade students of Theodore Roosevelt High School waged a mock battle within a grenade-toss-distance of the football stadium.
The cries of generals urged the soldiers on, and war correspondents dutifully recorded the "carnage" as the combatants fell and were collected on sleds by medics.
One German soldier screamed in mock pain, writhing on the ground.
"I got hit by a shell!" he cried.
"Where?" a medic asked.
"Everywhere!" the "wounded" student exclaimed.
This exercise in experiential history education was a first for the school, involving 50 advanced world history students, teachers and staff, and a variety of community resources.
The students were divided into French and German armies, and assumed a role to play during the simulation as generals, soldiers, medics or war correspondents.
Each student was given an "action card," detailing their tasks during the battle, and post-simulation assignments – generals who designed battle plans and fortifications would write condolence letters for lost troops, soldiers would pen journals, medics would record their cases and actions, journalists would assemble a newspaper account of the action and interviews.
They fought each other and the elements, clad in heavy coats, gloves and boots to cope with temperatures in the teens. Pin-on buttons identified their chosen nationalities.
Though the event was titled "World War I in the Trenches 2018," no actual trenches were dug in the ground.
The battlefield was divided into a French sector of mounded chest-high domes of dirt and wood chips, forming above-ground trenchworks, in an area the size of a tennis court. The Germans defended a cluster of trees, separated from the French by a small hill representing No Man's Land.
On the day before the outdoor re-enactment, they met with experts from the various fields their roles represented, including current and former military personnel.
Ohio National Guard Staff Sgt. Derrick Bachtell was one such advisor and worked with the student soldiers on the tactics and techniques of this bygone war.
He praised the program's approach. "It's a good hands-on learning experience, and the kids are excited about their roles, so that's a plus."
Michael Markulis, advanced world history teacher, noted, "The advantage of this simulation largely is that the students are innovating a lot of things. Rather than just reading about it, they're acting it out with research and simulation."
In a pep talk just prior to the battle, he encouraged students to really live their roles. "We want you guys to be a little bit on edge, and like nervous, because that's the point," he said.
One of the program leaders, Ashley Shaheen, a response intervention instructor, also advised, "If something happens to your generals, hopefully you have a chain of command."
Some members of the French army responded with gusto as they marched to the battlefield while playing the "French National Defile March" – the familiar tune that accompanies the Ohio State University marching band's "Script Ohio" formation.
Others started a chant: "Who are we? The French! One, two, three, go French!"
In his own exhortation to the troops, German general Johnny Burroughs, 15, said, "There is that one soldier who's a warrior, and he or she will bring every other soldier up to their level!"
The battle was waged with enthusiasm and a bit of frustration – cardboard weapons, though symbolic, can only do so much. A few snowballs provided some tangible results.
Smoke bombs were lit to simulate gas attacks, and the wounded threw themselves into their roles with realistic cries of mock pain as they were fitted with splints and bandages.
One medic somberly noted that she didn't think one victim was going to make it. "He's bleeding out. Got shot right in the heart," she noted.
As Dennis Antalek, 14, waiting behind his homemade machine gun for a French counter-attack, he was asked his opinion of the simulation.
"I think it's really cool," he said. I've learned a lot about World War I, what it was like in the trenches, and what it was like in the war in general."
German medic Hava Bailey, 14, said "I learned a lot more about how the (World War I) battles go on, and what their old medicine ways were, like less modern, how they used to do it."
As the battle ebbed and flowed between shouts of "Attack!" and "Retreat!" it could be hard to tell which side, if any, was winning.
One German soldier, upon scaling the top of the French fortifications, paused and turned to shout to his general, "What now?"
Nearby, war correspondent Sophia Matar, 14, followed the action and later said she chose her role because, "I just really like writing and taking photos. So I thought it'd be perfect for me."
She thought re-enacting history beat reading about it. "This make bigger impression, yeah, for sure," Matar said.
After a brief hot-chocolate warm-up inside the school, the students returned for a couple of spirited rounds of capture the flag, followed by a lunch of genuine U.S. Army MREs (meals ready to eat).
Isabelle Smith, 15, dubiously held up a sack of beef and black beans. When asked if she thought she'd like it, she replied, "Probably not. It'll be interesting."
Smith said she wanted to be a medic in the simulation "because I like to help people."
She described the day's events as "cold. I can't feel my face, but it was fun and worth it."
One program leader, Jennifer Flaherty, library media specialist, said the students "really seem to be taking it seriously, and applying what they've learned."
"I think it went very well," he said. "The kids were the ones who created the product and the tasks, and I think it's very authentic learning, and it's going to stick with them for a long time."
(c)2018 The Plain Dealer, Cleveland
Visit The Plain Dealer, Cleveland at www.cleveland.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.