A rewarding project on ‘The Great War’ and Norwich alums

A view of the exhibits at the Museum of the Great War in Pay de Beaux, France.

Norwich alumni who served during World War I are the focus of a project that both a military history class and a French class are collaboratively working on. Once finished, the work will be sent overseas sometime during the summer to the Muśee de la Grande Guerre du pays de Meaux (Museum of the Great War, located in Pays de Meaux, about 30 minutes from Paris in central France).

“Our forces over there had hopes and dreams,” said Frances Chevalier, a Professor of French and chair of the department of modern languages. “It’s important for us to learn more about what they experienced.”

Chevalier began this project following a string of visits to France. Professor Chevalier went on these trips to explore the history of France and while there, she found the resting place of her uncle, who had fought and died during the war, possibly in the trenches at the Battle of Verdun.

Chevalier said that her experiences in France, touring the cemeteries of the American deceased and discovering the resting place of her uncle were what would lead her to commit more time into researching World War I. That research would eventually culminate into the service learning project that is now under way.

These Service Learning Projects aim to interest students while also giving a sense of communal service that goes beyond the typical classroom project, Chevalier explained. Throughout the project, students will be able to serve both the Norwich alumni and the University in remembering those who answered the call to service during World War I. It is a fitting time to do that, she noted: “2017 is upon us, the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I.”

Chevalier’s class has been joined in its mission to pay homage to Norwich alumni who served in the Great War. The effort also includes Professor Steven Sodergren’s military history class.

“Professor Chevalier approached me, this is something she has been working on for quite a while,” said Sodergren, an associate professor of history.

Professor Sodergren said that the job his students were tasked with involved composing the biographies of those alumni who fought during the war somewhere in France.

Each of the 17 students in the history class chose an alumnus who either attended the university before going off to the war, joined during their time at Norwich, or enrolled in the University following the war’s end, Sodergren said.

“These biographies are intended to capture their pre-war, war time, and post-war experiences to get an idea as to who they were, why they served, and what impact it had on their lives,” Sodergren said.

With the help of Sodergren’s class, Chevalier said that her students would then translate those biographies into French as a part of their Service Learning Project before sending them to the museum, which opened in 2011 and has a permanent exhibition that looks at all aspects of WWI, which ground on between 1914-1918.

“It’s a humongous project, I can only tap the surface at this point,” Chevalier said. Having done much of the research herself, Chevalier said that the rest of the work would be handled by the students in either class.

“Anything to really try and bring light to what these people have done for their country and other countries will be kinda cool” said Garrett Dupre, 20, a junior studies in war and peace major from Hudson, Mass.

Dupre is in Sodergren’s class and is tasked with writing a biography on one of the alumni.

“I would be interested in probably doing someone from a middle class background where they didn’t necessarily have to join, but they still might have had better motivations than perhaps someone from the upper class,” Dupre said.

“The students were randomly assigned these biographies but they were given the opportunity to trade.” Sodergren explained, so that if say Dupre wanted that middle-class individual he would be allowed to swap with someone in his class.

Other students in the military history class are currently working towards completing the biographies of their assigned alum.

“People tend to really overlook the first world war,” said Peter McGuire, 21, a junior studies in war and peace major from Great Falls, Mo.

McGuire observe that he feels that World War II generally overshadows the first World War, as people speculate that not much was done other than sitting in trenches.

“It was bloody and gory, and people don’t want to think about that in history,” McGuire said. But the story of the soldiers needs to be told no matter how brutal the circumstances might have been.

“It will be gratifying to see the project put in a museum,” said Spencer Duhamel, 21, a junior English major from Manchester, N.H. Duhamel is one of Chevalier’s students who will be translating the biographies into French – which won’t be easy, he said, as there may be “varying discrepancies” between the French and English languages that could create mistakes. This is especially true of the informal versus formal aspects of either language.

Duhamel said that once the military history class finished up its part of the project before spring break, the French translation class headed by Chevalier would take over.

Upon completion of the project and after the biographies are sent to France, there may also be a display in the future at the university for students to view the final product, Sodergren said.

“They will be stored here at Norwich University, donated to our archives and our museum,” Sodergren said. “This being the centennial of America’s entry into the first world war creates all sorts of opportunities for displaying narratives of Norwich’s combat veterans from that war.”

The idea that these narratives might be displayed to the public sometime in the future provides a resource for those that want to research the experiences of Norwich veterans during World War I, Sodergren said.

Chevalier also said that the project may stimulate further interest into learning about what experiences different soldiers had during their service fighting in World War I, and that it will help strengthen Franco-American relations.

“It creates goodwill, and it’s also a way to build that relationship,” Chevalier said.

The French aspect of the project allows a connection to be made between the land where Norwich alumni fought and died, and the land they came from, Chevalier said. It is important that such a connection be made to investigate those “backyards” where American soldiers died defending freedom in France.

“By having these students prepare these bilingual biographies, it also illustrates how we get information about these Norwich alumni beyond the English-speaking realm,” Chevalier said.

The project is also important in terms of representing that Norwich University cares for its alumni, especially those who served.

“What we’re looking at is how well we as students perform on this,” McGuire said. “If we don’t perform well people are going to say ‘Wow they took something about their alumni and they didn’t take it seriously.’”

Spending the extra time to do more research into each individual alumnus and learning about these people are how the students can pay their respects, McGuire said.

In terms of the families that belong to these Norwich alumni, Sodergren said that some are aware of the project, and that if other families can be reached, all the research conducted will be given to them so that they may learn more about their loved ones.

“The Taylor family in particular was very interested in this project,” Sodergren said. Moses Taylor was an officer in the United States Army who went missing near St-Mihiel, France and was later killed in action on March 24, 1918. He is one of the alumni whose biography was chosen for the project.

Sodergren added that documentation of these men serve as recognition of Norwich University’s contributions to the nation by training these men to go fight in World War I. “The past century has been basically known as the American Century and it began with America’s entry into the World War I.”

With so many competing interests, Chevalier said she had a lot of people to thank for making this idea become a reality.

“Taylor Nash, who is a sophomore majoring in international studies and studying French, assisted me,” Chevalier said. She said that Nash volunteered her service out of her own personal interest to contribute.

Chevalier said Gail Wiese and Alison Horner, who worked in Norwich’s archives compiling all of the research used to write the biographies, were important in making the project more than just an idea.

The Muśee de la Grande Guerre du pays de Meaux is also to thank, Chevalier said, as her contact Madame Elena Le Gall, the Director of Public Services, proposed displaying these translated biographies in the museum.

The students involved said they were very humbled by the opportunity to be able to tell the stories of Norwich alumni who served and possibly made the ultimate sacrifice during World War I.

“When someone goes, ‘What did you do in college?’, you can say ‘Go to this museum, and you will find my name on this plaque in this exhibit, that’s what I did in college.’” McGuire said.

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