Students Gain Perspective Through WWI Trench Warfare Simulation

Dave Downer
Over the past few weeks, the Grade 10 History classes undertook what has become an annual exercise at CDS, a two-day field experience to enhance their understanding of the efforts of soldiers in World War One. The activity took place in the far eastern portion of the CDS property, a former cornfield on the other side of the railroad tracks. 
Day One was fairly straightforward involving surveying the landscape and envisioning the logistics and problems of trench warfare. The students had to survey “no-man’s land” and determine how they could successfully attack the enemy trench that was nearly 100 metres away. Many of the students utilized the Flipgrid app to record their ideas and impressions.
 
On Day Two, the students were outside for nearly two hours and took part in two experiential activities comprising three activities. At one station, the students experienced digging, constructing a twenty-metre long zig-zag trench, that eventually ended up being about a metre deep. With the dirt piled up on the front side, it created a trench almost two metres deep. Each class added 20 sandbags so that by the final class, 100 sandbags protected the front of the trench. At station two, the students problem-solved issues of communication and supply. How could you communicate over long distances using 1915 technology? What were the pros and cons? They also had to determine how to move adequate supplies to the front trench as safely as possible. Part of this involved building a field stretcher and transporting one of their wounded classmates up the hill. Both of these activities proved to be an eye-opener for our students.

Following that, the students had the opportunity to “go over the top” and advance across no-man’s land to try to take their objective. With defending students operating the fake machine guns and with the fake barbed wire obstacles, few of the student attackers made it to the trench. We reviewed the plans of attack from Day One and it did not turn out well for any of the groups. For example, most groups’ estimations of distance for artillery fire had them overshooting the trench by 50 to 150 metres, which would have not had any effect whatsoever. There was also a chance for students to consider the realities of defending the trench, including many critical practices, such as sheltering from snipers, to practical problems, such as how one would go to the bathroom. One of the most vivid illustrations was when two volunteers attempted to swing a bucket filled with water over the top of the trench into no-man’s land; five out of five classes failed with much of the water splashing back into the trench.
 
While no simulation can ever duplicate the experience of war, the goal was to increase understanding and empathy for the soldiers who took part in the Great War. Students commented that had no idea how hard it was to dig for 20 minutes, let alone months or years. They gained a greater appreciation of what it must have been like to be exposed to the elements and to deal with all the discomforts of living and fighting for extended periods of time. They even baked their own hard tack (bread) and tested it on their families. All agreed that this diet would wear thin pretty quickly. The connections they made to the class material and to their book, Generals Die In Bed, were profound.
 
Mr. Downer, Ms. Moonan and Mr. Young’s plan was to create a deeper link to the Canadian experience of World War One, especially right before the week of Remembrance. The plan was also to build a memorable activity for the students. Both goals were accomplished.
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13415 Dufferin Street King, Ontario L7B 1K5
(905) 833-1220
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Founded in 1972, The Country Day School is a co-educational private school offering programs in JK-12 and located on 100 acres north of Toronto in King.