Trench warfare brought to life
Taking a peek was a dangerous proposition, for every time they did bullets whizzed past their heads.
But they had no choice in the matter since they were under orders to make the perilous charge across No Man’s Land, bullets or no bullets, barbed wire or no barbed wire.
Such was life for a soldier in the First World War and, for a brief time, the life of a Fairfield High School social studies student. That is because the students engaged in a trench warfare simulation Monday that recreated battlefield conditions of “The Great War.”
The historical re-enactment was the brainchild of high school teacher Andrew Hopper. Hopper had been inspired to do something out of the ordinary after listening to a presentation by professional development speaker Dave Burgess. Burgess urged the teachers in the district to do something their students had never seen out of them before.
Hopper took the message to heart. He asked himself what he could do to enliven his teaching methods. He discovered the trench war simulation through the Internet and modified it to suit his own classroom.
He spent 10 hours the previous weekend decorating his room to look like a 1914 European battlefield. In all, Hopper devoted 20-30 hours outside of class time to plan and set up his simulation.
“It made for a hectic two weeks, but I got to step out of my comfort zone in teaching,” he said.
Hopper got the idea for the simulation from another teacher who posted the rules for the gameplay on the Internet. The basic idea is to divide the class into two teams and to give each team a trench to hide in. Hopper did this by turning over desks and covering them with tarp. Each side was given big wads of paper to turn into “artillery shells” and smaller ones to use as “machine gun bullets.”
The two sides were given a chance to fire their artillery shells in an effort to hit the soldiers in the opposing trench. If a soldier was hit, he had to lie still for the rest of the simulation. Once that was done, the two sides took turns charging the other trench. However, because each side was armed with machine guns, the attacking soldiers had to keep their heads down and crawl toward the other trench.
Complicating their advance was the presence of barbed wire, represented by desks, in No Man’s Land. The goal of the attacking side was to capture a flag on the wall behind their opponent’s defenses and bring the flag back to their own side, a practically impossible task designed to illustrate the improbability of a successful attack in a real trench war.
Hopper shouted instructions to each side as a general would to his troops. He even dressed the part, borrowing an early 20th century military uniform complete with fake medals and a fake mustache, all from the drama department’s closet.
Hopper’s social studies class spends about a month studying World War I. In fact, Monday’s battlefield simulation was not the first simulation the class has undertaken. The class spent the early portion of the unit learning about the lead-up to the war. Librarian Jolene Bullis came to the class to teach them about building alliances, just as the Great Powers of the era built alliances before the war.
“I didn’t want the students to go right into the fighting,” Hopper said. “I wanted them to understand why they were fighting. I did a lot of preparatory work on the main causes of the war and why certain countries were involved.”
The class learned about the United States’s participation in the war and how domestic politics influenced the decision if and when to enter the war. He said he enjoyed being able to make a century-old historical event seem so real to the students.
“We refer to this as entertainment learning,” he said. “We want to educate the kids but do it in a way that invigorates the students and gives them something to care about. If students are going to learn about things in the past, they need to know why it’s relevant to today’s world.”