BRISTOL - Eleven eighth-grade students from St. Joseph School stopped into the Memorial Military Museum Monday to try on the uniforms of World War I soldiers, handle their gear, see their photographs and letters and learn what life was like for those who served 100 years ago.
The students, who wore paper poppies in remembrance of the soldiers, toured the museum and then visited four activity stations manned by museum members.
The program and the field trip was sponsored by a donation from the Thomaston Savings Bank Foundation.
As Carol Denehy showed the students around the museum, she explained that the gallery would be open through Veterans Day, originally known as Armistice Day, in honor of the end of the war. She also showed them a letter that Bristol World War I soldier Frank Chapin wrote home to his future wife, Rosemary Hennessey, who lived on Prospect Street.
During the tour, student Dominic Amara questioned Denehy why the WWI soldiers were known as “doughboys.”
“They were sent to the Arizona desert to chase down (Mexican bandit general) Pancho Villa,” explained Denehy. “As they marched, the dust covered them and it looked like they were covered in baking flour. That name stuck throughout the war.”
Michael Thomas led students on a scavenger hunt in the Jack Denehy Gallery WWI exhibit. They were tasked to find items which helped to shape a better understanding of the war - such as a piece of gear that soldiers used to see over a trench top without being shot. They also poured over letters and informational plaques to find information such as the name of a soldier who was blinded in one eye, whose leg was nearly shot off, and who still managed to save more than 200 American soldiers in 25 minutes.
Mike Pirog showed students uniforms and helmets, a gas mask, a bayonet and an unloaded German Mauser rifle and a Purple Heart that was awarded to soldiers wounded in battle. Students were given the opportunity to try on the uniforms and handle the rifle.
“I can’t believe that people were so short back then,” said Matt Marcantonio as he put on one of the uniforms.
Emily Taillon showed students the different items that soldiers carried with them, such as a straight razor for shaving and a device which could peel and de-core an apple.
Darlene Lefevre read the famous poem “In Flanders Fields,” written by Lt. Col. John McCrae to students and explained its meaning.
“For 17 days they never changed their clothes, they hardly ate and they dragged 270 wounded people back to medical tents,” Lefevre explained of the battle. “Why would they notice the singing of birds? Because when things are really terrible you try to find something beautiful. If you keep thinking about only the bad things you can’t go on.”
Lefevre explained how the poem is written from the voice of the dead, asking the living not to forget them.
“If you forget, they died for nothing,” she said. “The poppies you are wearing are a symbol of remembrance. One hundred years later you are remembering them by being here. These men were just a little older than you when they died. If you lived 100 years ago then you could have been one of them.”
Following the program, the visiting students enjoyed donuts and learned about the Salvation Army “Donut Girls” who were women who volunteered to cook and serve thousands of free donuts to the soldiers serving in France, Denehy explained.
Brian M. Johnson can be reached at 860-973-1806 or firstname.lastname@example.org.