On October 18, 2019, we boarded a bus for O’Hare and then checked into our flight to London. By 11 am the next morning we were standing in the British Imperial War Museum, taking in our first exploration of how museums have interpreted the First World War.
We got a good night sleep and set off the next day for Belgium, taking the Chunnel to Brussels and traveling by train to Ypres / Ieper, where the Battle of Passchendaele was fought in 1917.
We spent three nights in Belgium, taking in two museums, and seeing countless memorials, trench reconstructions, and British and German cemeteries.
At the Passchendaele 1917 Memorial Museum, we saw the different explosives and gas shells up close as well as the guns that fired them. In the photo below, Caroline Elser, a junior from Arkansas—abroad for the first time—takes in the magnitude of what she was seeing. I’ll have more to say about how this trip inspired her later on. Caitlin Fennelly, a junior from Virginia, got a sense of how museums can tell different stories. This will lead her to design a senior thesis on historiography and memory. After Belgium, we would travel to Vimy Ridge, the Somme, the site of the big U.S. offensive at Meuse-Argonne, and finally end at Verdun, one of the biggest battles of the First World War.
Everyone had their moment when the experiences overwhelmed their emotional capacity to take it all in. Mine came at the U.S. Military Cemetery at the Meuse-Argonne. Nearly 12,000 American soldiers—who died during the last major offensive on the Western Front—are buried there, somewhere in northwestern France. Unlike the British or German cemeteries, which concentrate their war dead in dense rows, the U.S. cemetery gave every soldier his own stone and his own space. One can take more fully the human cost of war. I walked through the cemetery and up the hill to the visitor center and took in the whole scene: 12,000 graves on the side of a massive hill. I sat on the steps and just wept. Before I knew it, all the students, emerging from the visitor center, sat around me in a protective circle and let me cry. No one said anything—they didn’t have to. They knew what I felt. They felt it too.