Was it really great?

Was it really great?

Wilmington College reflects on World War I

By Chelsea Davis

Photo: Carlisle Columbia Law, a resident of Hamilton, was 23 years old when he left for France with the military in 1917. Items  courtesy of Greg Law, photo: Randy Sarvis

“These are the powerful stories from history that help us connect to these massive, overwhelming events,” Ruth Brindle, Wilmington College’s Quaker Heritage Center curator, said. “Something about these stories and hearing the voices of the people involved, that is how we connect to history.”

The Pity of War: Words and Images of World War I opened Monday, July 28, marking the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I.

“As an American citizen, we think, ‘Oh, the anniversary isn’t for a while – 2017,’” Brindle said. “But no, the war started much earlier for others.”

What was once dubbed “The Great War” has since become a distant memory, often overlooked when discussing modern history.

“We don’t do a good job of teaching people about history as more than a series of dates,” Brindle said. “We want to do as much as we can to connect the people.”

For many, World War I feels more ancient than modern. Many of the surviving participants were long gone by the early aughts, with the last veteran passing away in 2010. And while Hollywood has devoted much of its time to the catastrophes of World War II, it has remained unusually silent on the happenings of this Great War.

“The last veteran was alive in 2010,” Brindle said. “But this was a life-changing event for so many people. We have this amazing wealth of information from people during this time.”

The idea for the exhibit was born out of a freshman English writing prompt on family treasures. Brindle’s British colleague, Charlotte Fairlie, assistant professor of English, came to Brindle after a student handed in a powerful essay on a set of photos of World War I, handed down from his great-great-grandfather.

“She showed me the photos and essay, and said the 100th anniversary was coming up,” Brindle said. “We came up with the idea of looking at the war from those involved and how that can be a very pro-peace statement.”

The idea grew from there and became a class project for an Intro to Public History Practice course.

“How do you take history outside the classroom?” Brindle asked. “You could work in museums, parks … we take the theories and put them into practice in this course. They were given this challenge.”

The students and Brindle were tasked with figuring out how to quickly educate the museum patrons on the events of World War I, while also including the very humanizing side of the war – all within a 1,200-square-foot space.

The exhibit first gives patrons a short, simple rundown of the war and some of the progress between the years of 1914 and 1919, before going into more detail on how the civilians responded to the war, particularly the Quaker community in Wilmington, Ohio.

In the Quaker tradition, six testimonies are upheld: simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality and stewardship.

These tenets, when applied to everyday life, were behind many social change and relief movements throughout history, such as the women’s suffrage movement, abolitionist movement and war relief efforts.

This exhibit focuses on the incredible things done, at home and abroad, by Quakers – a forgotten community during a forgotten war.

“The American Friends Service Committee [a Quaker organization] got its start in 1917, as a result of the British version,” Brindle said. “It was a way for Quakers to funnel that kind of relief work to Europe. They worked very closely with the Red Cross, but they were a separate organization, structurally based on Quaker beliefs and relief service.”

The Quaker Heritage Center compiled artifacts from service members and civilian relief workers.

“Probably my favorite item, right now, is the diary of a young man named Richard Larkin who served with the Red Cross,” Brindle said. “He was a Quaker from this area and he talks about going to Romania and working with the Gypsy population. It’s really cool to read through because you get caught up in these nationalities: French, German, English; this nationless group was still very much involved in this war and in history.”

Also on display is a series of diaries from Ellen Wright, a member of Wilmington College’s first graduating class, who taught Latin and grammar at Wilmington for 40 years. In her diaries from 1910-1919, Wright described what life was like in Wilmington for those waiting for the war to end.

“She would write about food shortages, or going down to City Hall or the Courthouse to hear someone speak about how to help and how there was a real hunger among the general public to hear about what was happening,” Brindle said. “It really brings home how much the war impacted people at home. Quaker or non-Quaker.”

A number of events will run in conjunction with the exhibit. One of the most unusual and exciting events is a choral performance by the Cantabile Men’s Ensemble of Wilmington, directed by Steven Haines, titled “All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914,” which will begin Tuesday, Nov. 11. During the Christmas of 1914, without any go-ahead from higher ranking officials, the men in the trenches agreed on a cease-fire, because it was Christmas. They came out of their trenches, swapped cigarettes and gum and had a few nights of peace during the first Christmas of the war. The event is a mix of choral performances of songs from this period and dramatic readings of letters and dairies of men from the front lines.

“[Haines] came into my office and handed me a CD, and said to just listen to it and call him,” Brindle said. “I was on the road later that week and had to pull over. He didn’t know I was working on this exhibit. So, we got over the willies of that coincidence and decided to host it. It helped shape the performance.”

The Pity of War: Words and Images of World War I, runs through Friday, Dec. 12 at the Quaker Heritage Center at Wilmington College, 1870 Quaker Way, Wilmington. For more information about the exhibit and related events, please visit wilmington.edu/qhc.

Reach DCP freelance writer Chelsea Davis at ChelseaDavis@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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