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Shovel-Ready Project: Juniata History Student Digs Trench to Honor WW I

(Posted April 19, 2010)

Jacob Gordon uses a pick to break up soil as he digs his replica of a World War I trench.

HUNTINGDON, Pa. - On a college campus, "digging a deep hole" usually means you've fallen behind on a paper. At Juniata College, digging a deep hole can be a senior project.

Jacob Gordon, a senior at Juniata College from Altoona, Pa., inspired by a history class on World War I and a research paper he recently completed, is reconstructing a crucial part of the World War I era; a trench where he will live and learn for two days.

Gordon, who studies history and library science, is determined to create a replica of a trench that the British lived in and fought from for years on the Western Front during World War I from 1914-1918. The reconstruction is planned to be four feet deep, four feet wide and ten feet long. Digging to the depth of an actual World War I trench would be difficult considering they were typically eight to ten feet deep. Gordon will make up the difference by using the displaced soil to fill sandbags atop the trench lip.

On Saturday, April 17, Gordon plans to begin digging the trench on a hillside near the Elizabeth Evans Baker Peace Chapel on the corner of the Baker-Henry Nature Preserve on Warm Springs Road -- with the help of several volunteers. The digging will continue throughout the week. It is planned to be complete by Friday, April 23.

Once the trench is ready, Gordon and his volunteers will march to the trench, much like the soldiers who manned battlefields in the First World War. From there, they will live in the trench until Sunday, April 25. Gordon says, "I'm hoping people will want to do this; otherwise it will be a long weekend."

"The point of this project is not for a class, club, or independent study or for any credits at all. I created this idea to get a better understanding of the daily conditions the British soldiers faced."
Jacob Gordon, Juniata senior, Altoona, Pa.

He has created a Web site with photos of the location and up-to-date information on the project. Go to entrenched.tumblr.com to view the Web site.

"The point of this project is not for a class, club, or independent study or for any credits at all. I created this idea to get a better understanding of the daily conditions the British soldiers faced," Gordon says.

Not many people are familiar with the typical lifestyle of a British soldier during the First World War, but Gordon's interest started his sophomore year when he took a class called the Great War. During his junior year he decided to do an independent study project on Ivor Gurney, a British poet and composer who served in one of the battles during the Great War.

Ivor Gurney was an infantry soldier whose muse during trench life was his hobby of creating musical compositions and writing poems. Gordon learned that Gurney felt that the war had given him a strong sense of structure in his life. Gordon's personal admiration grew for the historical figure as he realized, "I could use some more structure in my life." Researching Gurney and learning about the soldier's journey gave Gordon a strong base for his trench endeavor.

In an attempt to make everything as accurate to the time period as possible, Gordon plans to march out to the trench at nighttime mimicking the idea that soldiers would only travel in the dark to avoid being seen. The participants will eat in trench conditions. The food will be a loaf of bread and canned beef, brought to them other volunteers who act as the cooks. During World War I the cooks supplied the food to the soldiers living in the trenches from an interlaced series of secondary trenches located in the rear of the trench network.

Gordon is keeping the experience as real as possible, making a rule where no one is allowed to have their heads above the parapet, the wall surrounding the top of the trench. If someone deviates from this rule they will be considered a casualty.

Gordon says, "This project is not meant for us to 'play soldier' or glorify war, but to de-romanticize warfare."

And it will be de-romanticized for the people who participate in this venture. Rain or shine, the crew plans to stick it out and remain in the trench for two complete days. Gordon admits, "I am really hoping to avoid something like the battle of Passchendaele in France where it rained and stormed the whole time."

He plans to have up to eight people living in the trench, but no less than three in order to carry out the rotating shifts of sentry duty, rest, and maintenance. During downtime in the trench Gordon plans to continue the replication of British soldiers by writing letters, reading, gambling, building telescope devices, and digging funk holes (a small dugout or shelter).

"I'm going to write to my fiancé," says Jake who is engaged to Elizabeth Snyder, a Juniata alumnus who attends graduate school at Case Western University in Ohio.

When Gordon graduates in May, he plans to attend the University of Pittsburgh and pursue a master's degree in library science.

Overall, the trench project, developed solely as a personal venture rather than a credited thesis or class assignment, is a process that has stretched Gordon as a student and as a leader.

Gordon admits, "Carrying off a large project like this has put me in a place of leadership, which is something I often choose not to do."

Written by: Molly Sollenberger

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.