Day One was a class of preparation for trench warfare comprising three activities. At station one, the students experienced digging, constructing a 20-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. At station two, the students problem-solved issues of communication and supply. How could you communicate over long distances? What were the pros and cons? They also had to determine how to move adequate supplies to the front trench as safely as possible. At station three, 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.
On Day Two, the students had the opportunity to “go over the top” and advance across no-man’s land to try and take their objective. With Mr. MacMillan, Mr. Watts or student volunteers manning the fake machine guns and with the fake barbed wire obstacles, few of the student soldiers 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; four out of four 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 they 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 have been exposed to the elements and to deal with all the discomforts of living and fighting for extended periods of time. They even got to bake their own hard tack (bread) and eat it in the field. All agreed that this diet would wear thin pretty quickly. The students journaled each experience in the field and then brought those reflections back to class to write up their feelings. The connections they made to the class material and to their book, Generals Die In Bed, were profound.
Mr. Downer 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.
Story by Dave Downer, Senior School Social Sciences