War and remembrance

Olivia Haase ’15 knew her great, great uncle had died on a World War I battlefield in France. What she didn’t know was how powerful the feelings would be when she saw his nearly century-old grave at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in Belleau.

“It made it so much more personal for me,” Haase, a health science major from Princeton, N.J., said. “The fact that I got to visit a relative’s grave is incredible . . . It was very somber. I wasn’t expecting any of that stuff to hit me as hard as it did. So many of the soldiers who died were my age, so that was a tear-jerker. It made it very real and made me appreciate soldiers in general.”

“It made it so much more personal for me,” Haase, a health science major from Princeton, N.J., said. “The fact that I got to visit a relative’s grave is incredible . . . It was very somber. I wasn’t expecting any of that stuff to hit me as hard as it did. So many of the soldiers who died were my age, so that was a tear-jerker. It made it very real and made me appreciate soldiers in general.”

A member of the staff at the memorial of the Battle of Chateau-Thierry gave Haase information on her uncle and led her to the site, where she honored tradition by rubbing sand from the beach at Normandy (used as a symbolic connector of the two World Wars) over his marker to highlight his name: Thomas Dabney Kern. He was one of approximately 67,000 Americans to die in that battle alone during the awful summer of 1918.

A member of the staff at the memorial of the Battle of Chateau-Thierry gave Haase information on her uncle and led her to the site, where she honored tradition by rubbing sand from the beach at Normandy (used as a symbolic connector of the two World Wars) over his marker to highlight his name: Thomas Dabney Kern. He was one of approximately 67,000 Americans to die in that battle alone during the awful summer of 1918.

Haase’s “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” came about because she was one of the fortunate students selected by Furman history professors Carolyn Day and Marian Strobel to participate in the “War and Remembrance” May Experience (May X) class that spent 17 days touring battlefields, cemeteries and memorials in England, France, and Belgium.

“One of the new fields in history is how are historical events remembered. Not just what happened,” Strobel said. It’s a safe bet her students will never see war the same way.

“I think we were all shocked. Even when you hear the numbers of all the people who have died, it kind of doesn’t hit you until you’re standing in the middle of the cemetery,” Mary Kate Buchanan ’16 said. “We also went to Omaha Beach . . . You can see how awful it was on that beach, and then we’re standing there and there was no one on the beach at all, and we were told that people go out there and just hang out. I just couldn’t imagine doing that.”

World War I and its 100th anniversary this summer was the primary focus, but in addition the students stopped at Normandy during the 70th anniversary of D-Day, saw the Bayeux Tapestry in France, which depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England, and visited Waterloo in Belgium.

“What was most moving was when we moved into the French countryside and went to the location of the Battle of Somme in Verdun and saw all of these various memorials that were for the missing,” Strobel said. “That is unbelievable—the number of names on monuments—and they don’t know where these bodies disappeared to. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands. It’s hard to get your mind around all of it.”

The competition to be selected for the trip was stiff. There was a formal application process run through the student-away office followed by personal interviews because Day and Strobel wanted serious candidates only. “These (students) were very carefully vetted,” Strobel said. “We had 53 applications and 21 went with us, so we were very careful to pick students that we knew were really interested or had some connection to the war.”

“The first info session was packed 10 minutes before the thing even started. I thought, man, there’s no way I’m getting into this,” Buchanan, a religion/sociology double major from Hudson, Ohio, said. “But lucky me!”

“The first info session was packed 10 minutes before the thing even started. I thought, man, there’s no way I’m getting into this,” Buchanan, a religion/sociology double major from Hudson, Ohio, said. “But lucky me!”

Buchanan, who said that her favorite memory was seeing what WWI soldiers had engraved in trench walls, realized what a different experience Europeans have had with war.

“I think we have to learn about it through textbooks whereas the kids over there can go out into a battle field and still see where a land mine was blown up. I don’t think we can really learn about it as well as they can,” she said. “It’s almost good in a way that they can learn properly what happened and actually know the realities of war. . . I think it’s kind of interesting the difference.”

Leah Barngrover ’16, a history major who was excited to visit Europe for the first time, also noticed a significant difference in war remembrance depending on your side of the Atlantic.

“In the United States we really don’t commemorate a lot of our wars. It’s more we just talk about it . . . In Europe there are hundreds of cemeteries and monuments dedicated to fallen soldiers, even American ones, and it’s just so different,” she said. “I don’t know if we just don’t want to think about it a lot or if we’re caught up in other things. We have holidays, and maybe that’s our way of dealing with it instead.”

The students were left with little choice to think during their jarring visit to the Douaumont Ossuary in France. The memorial contains the skeletal remains of at least 130,000 French and German soldiers who died in 1916 on the Verdun battlefield, and it sparked quite a debate.

“We saw a lot of really beautiful places, and it’s that total irony because when you’re fighting those wars it is a completely different atmosphere and it just really hits you. Definitely,” Barngrover, a native of Cleveland, Mo., said. “There were thousands upon thousands of bones thrown in there. I know some people thought that was disrespectful because you shouldn’t be able to see that, but I thought it was really powerful and impactful and I kind of liked it.”

The trip wasn’t all serious. Buchanan found that Belgian waffles live up to their reputation for excellence, and there were cultural tours of London, Paris, and Brussels. The sum of those parts was a unique experience that may just stay that way.

“We talked about that, and we’re not sure we would,” Strobel said when asked if the class will be offered again. “Not for the obvious reasons, because we learned a great deal, but we don’t think we would ever have a group of students as wonderful as this group and we would be disappointed.”

To illustrate her point, Strobel shared an entry from Buchanan’s journal. “Thank you so much for planning this trip and for allowing me to be a part of it,” she wrote. “I will never forget the friendships I have made. I think this trip was the definition of what Furman calls engaged learning. I learned so much about the countries we visited, the cultures, the war obviously, and myself than I ever imagined that I would. I don’t think I will ever be able to go on another May X because it won’t even come close to this. I thank you both from the bottom of my heart.”