Students return to trenches where Connecticut soldiers fought a century ago
By JESSE LEAVENWORTH | The Hartford Courant | Published: August 24, 2019
HARTFORD, Conn. (Tribune News Service) — A rusty spoon gave Josh Picoult a portal to World War I and the perilous life of a young soldier.
The Simsbury High School senior was among 15 Connecticut students who traveled to France last month to restore trenches that French soldiers dug in 1914 and Connecticut soldiers occupied four years later. Coordinated by historian Christine Pittsley of the Connecticut State Library, the project was meant as a history lesson and a way to bolster ties between the state and the village of Seicheprey, where doughboys from Bristol, Hartford, New Britain and other towns fought the Americans' first significant battle of the war.
The Connecticut teenagers, from schools throughout the state, joined 16 French students in restoring the original outline of a trench in woods skirting the tiny farming village (pop. 124). Led by military historians, the students also reinforced trench walls with woven hardwood saplings, rebuilt a log-roofed abris, or shelter, and recovered numerous items left by French and American soldiers a century ago.
On the third day at the site, Picoult said, his work partner's shovel scraped on something metal in the side of the trench.
"Digging through the dirt, we pulled out a spoon from a French mess kit with a bullet hole through the right side of its bowl," he wrote in an email to The Courant. "We learned that this probably happened when a soldier wanted to check for snipers and would hold up his utensil to see if it was safe. Obviously, for the solider with this particular spoon, it was not.
"It only dawned on me later how the soldier holding the spoon that day was most likely not much older than I am now – just a boy fighting for his country and fighting for his life," Picoult wrote. "We quickly realized that the significance of the project was far more than just a small trip for high school history lovers. It became our American duty – a chance to protect, preserve and restore not just the trenches themselves, but our longstanding connections with the French citizens of Seicheprey."
Pittsley, who led the state's centennial commemoration of World War I, has the bullet-blasted spoon along with Connecticut soldiers' circular dog tags, bits of shrapnel, a brass uniform button made in Waterbury and other recovered artifacts.
The three-week trip to France, she said, was life-changing for her as well.
"It is the highlight of my life," Pittsley said.
The students were chosen based on essays and interviews, and the entire project, except for Pittsley's time, was funded by the students themselves and private donations. Before they traveled to France, each student researched the life of a soldier from his or her hometown who fought at Seicheprey.
Near the village on April 20, 1918, the 102nd came under an early morning artillery barrage. As the bombardment lifted, 3,200 German soldiers armed with flamethrowers and explosives emerged from the fog. There was hand-to-hand fighting in the trenches, and a company mess sergeant and his kitchen staff used cleavers and butcher knives to do their part against the German raiders.
The attack, according to later reports, was designed to feel out the raw troops, testing their strength and willingness to fight. By most accounts, the Germans suffered significant losses. The 102nd lost 81 dead; 401 wounded, including some poisoned by gas; and about 200 captured.
To mark the battle's anniversary last year, Seicheprey residents read the names of the Connecticut men who were killed. A fountain in the village square, donated by the people of the state in 1923, bears this inscription:
"To commemorate the service of the 102nd Infantry ... a regiment of the American Army recruited from citizens of Connecticut, defenders of Seicheprey, April 20, 1918, in the firm belief that the friendship of Frenchmen and Americans sealed in this place in battle shall serve the cause of peace among all nations, this memorial is presented by the men and women of Connecticut."
Over the top
On the students' first day at the work site, a Dutch historian named Sjoerd van der Ven instructed them to line up in a trench and wait for his signal – three blasts on a whistle – to go "over the top." Some of the kids said their hearts were racing as they crouched and waited, Pittsley said.
"It was exactly the right way to start the work," she said. "It set the mood."
The six boys and nine girls from Connecticut and their French counterparts started by clearing vines and weeds from a section of trench line more than a hundred feet long. They soon ran into their first hazard – hairy caterpillars that left itchy red rashes, especially on the backs of their necks. The crews also moved "a ton of rocks," Pittsley said, and a French word for rock ,"caillou," became a familiar cry as workers tossed stones from the trench and a caved-in shelter.
Safety was stressed, Pittsley said. If a shovel or pick hit metal, students were told to immediately call over one of the adults guiding the work. The digging did uncover several inactive grenades, both American and German, but no active explosives were uncovered, she said.
When they were done, the Franco-American crew invited Seicheprey residents to view their project.
"They were in awe. They were in awe of the kids," Pittsley said.
Besides the restoration work, the students also visited the St. Mihiel American Cemetery, where those who had researched soldiers who died in battle were allowed to lower the American flag.
Pittsley said she plans to return in April and install informational signs in English and French at the restored trench line. Continuing the cross-cultural historical exchange, in the summer of 2020, French students will come to Connecticut to work on a project here, hopefully, the Rochambeau Trail, used by French allies in the Revolutionary War, she said. And in 2021, the plan is to bring another group of Connecticut students to Seicheprey to continue trench restoration, Pittsley said.
"When we left the trenches for the last time this July," Picoult said, "I was cognizant of the fact that we were handing off this initiative to a new generation of researchers, a new generation of learners and a new generation of those who will never forget."
(c)2019 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)
Visit The Hartford Courant at www.courant.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.