Michigan Tech symposium digs deep into history of World War I

Michigan Tech football players fill burlap sacks for a trench on campus that is part of a “World War I and the Copper Country” symposium that begins Sept. 28. (MTU photo)

HOUGHTON – All is not so quiet on the Western Upper Peninsula front, as Michigan Technological University brings “World War I and the Copper Country” to life to mark a century since the end of the Great War.

It’s an all-campus community effort, from the 100 Michigan Tech football players filling 2,500 burlap sand bags for an immersive firing trench next to Wadsworth Hall, to exhibitions on display at Carnegie Museum of the Keweenaw in downtown Houghton.

Multi-faceted multimedia events, including an evening of silent film, an outdoor symphony concert and self-guided tours of the trench, are all free and open to the public.

The roughly 100-foot-long trench officially opens on Sept. 24, precursor to the two-day symposium that begins on campus Sept. 28. The trench is designed by Stan Vitton, a professor of civil engineering, and Gregg Richards, P.E., of Michigan Tech Engineering Services, with historical input from Steven Walton, a professor of social sciences, along with Lt. Col. John O’Kane of Michigan Tech’s Air Force ROTC. Construction is being coordinated by professor Kris Mattila, of the civil engineering department, and Sue Collins, professor of humanities and World War I & the Copper Country project director.

Huskies head football coach Steve Olson coordinated the participation. Student athletes were more than willing to help, says team member Cal McCarthy. “It’s gonna be cool to see when it’s done,” he says.

Fellow team member Glacier Wallington says organizers made it easy to pitch in. “Dr. Mattila set us up and got us all the materials–we brought the manpower.”

World War I, which pitted the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire against the Allied Powers of Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, Japan and the United States, began in 1914 and ended in 1918. The United States entered the war in 1917 and the Armistice was signed on Nov. 11, 1918. Ironically, November 11 wasn’t the end for the band of Michiganders serving overseas, including many from the Upper Peninsula. “Soldier’s Stories: The UP and the Great War” at the Carnegie offers an exhibit rich with detail, including many familiar Copper Country names.

Fittingly for a research university, investigation is an integral part of the World War I & the Copper Country project, and much remains to be discovered about the Keweenaw’s participation in the war.

“We’re still learning about Michigan Tech’s involvement in the war, too,” says Walton, an expert in military history who has found some of the records of Tech’s Student Army Training Corps at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

“Where did our Michigan College of Mines boys go? We know they did drills on campus,” he says, noting that then-President Fred W. McNair was an enthusiastic supporter of the war and got the Michigan College of Mines involved quickly.

Trenches were dug at universities across the country, but there’s no evidence of that activity here, says Walton, although a tunnel dug in the hillside down by the former power plant was used for both “mine running” and for gas mask training.

The trenches of World War I zig-zagged 440 miles, an irregular line extending from the Swiss border to the North Sea coast of northern France and Belgium. Known as the Western Front, individual trench configurations–depth, size and purpose–were an irregular battle line drawn not in sand, but shoveled and scooped, often inelegantly fortified with whatever materials came to hand, from downed trees and planks to stones and earth.

There were different kinds of trenches, staggered in irregular patterns so that artillery hitting one section would not devastate others. All trenches were considered lifesavers in comparison to the brutal direct charges of those serving in the infantry and cavalry fighting hand-to-hand, wide open to the brunt of eviscerating artillery and machine gun fire.

Armored tanks and aeroplanes were in their infancy at the war’s beginning. Primitive fighting methods as well as rapidly developing technology, took more than 17 million lives.

Michigan Tech is constructing a forward-firing sand-bag fortified trench that will include replica barbed wire and an immersive audio experience, including a battle soundscape with readings of soldier memoirs and war poetry developed by professor Christopher Plummer and production manager George Hommowun from Michigan Tech’s Visual and Performing Arts Department.

Interpretive signs on the self-guided tour will help visitors understand the construction and role of trenches in what H.G. Wells termed “the war that will end all wars.” Slightly modified to meet accessibility and safety requirements for public access, the trench will be camera-monitored 24-7–and Michigan Tech Public Safety is located right across the street.

World War I & the Copper Country exhibits will expand across campus and community beginning Thursday, with two concurrent exhibits in the Rozsa Center for Performing Arts Gallery: “American and French Propaganda Posters” and “Shell-Shocked: Footage and Sounds of the Front” run until Oct. 2. An opening reception from 5-7 p.m. Eastern time on Thursday features Stefka Hristova, a humanities professor, discussing the iconography of war.

World War I and the Copper Country culminates at 11 a.m. Eastern time on Sunday, Nov. 11, when millions around the world will pause to commemorate the centenary of the end of the war and to consider the implications of global warfare. The trench, and the project, close Nov. 11 with a musical performance and color guard. All are invited, but especially U.P. veterans, who will be honored for their service.

World War I & the Copper Country is a Michigan Tech collaboration with Carnegie Museum of the Keweenaw and Finlandia University in Hancock. The event is in part made possible by a grant from the Michigan Humanities Council, an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.