Local history expo teaches lessons we need to learn

  • WWI re-enactors in Orange.

Published: 9/12/2018 8:56:09 PM

Apparently, we never learned the lessons of the First World War, “the war to end all wars,” but that hasn’t stopped Massachusetts Military History Exposition from continuing to teach about that war.

It’s been 100 years since the end of World War I, and to mark the occasion, the exposition held two “World War I Days” this past week in Orange.

Around 80 re-enactors donned the wide-brimmed helmets of American Expeditionary Forces and the British Army, or the gray coats of the German and Austro-Hungarian armies, and turned the fields by the Orange Airport into 1918 France, where the war was defined by trench warfare, new lethal technologies and  slaughter by the thousands.

The booming sounds of artillery, rattling guns, men screaming and falling and the frantic rush of field medics could be heard over the weekend during what was a very realistic, and educational, re-enactment.

“You can pick up a book and read about the war, but when you come out, you live it, you smell the smoke, you hear the sounds,” said organizer Dan Eaton, who has for four years now organized similar visceral learning experiences, previously about WWII.

He said that the point of it all is to educate.

“But what my real goal here is, is to get a kid to pick up a book,” he added. “Even if it’s just one kid.”

World War I introduced battlefield innovations like tanks, aircraft and machine guns.

A distinguishing feature of World War I on display was trench warfare. Soldiers would spend months, even entire deployments, living and fighting from these dug out pathways, some of which stretched for many miles. They would keep their heads low, except when they were ordered to go “going over the top” and into the open space between the lines in often vain attempts to gain ground.

Organizer Missi Eaton added that the location at the Orange Airport was what allowed the group to put on such a realistic display, giving the re-enactors and organizers the chance to dig trenches on site, and show the public what “going over the top” really looked like.

Dan Eaton said it’s important to preserve the history of all wars, including World War I, which doesn’t get as much media attention, films or books as other wars, like World War II.

Eaton said he and his group put on the World War I Days in an attempt to make more people aware of a devastating and influential portion of history.

It takes lots of work to present such authentic educational displays, and the Eaton’s deserve credit for making the effort to ensure, locally at least, that the Great War’s lessons are not lost. Maybe some day we will finally learn those lessons.

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