Behind enemy lines
World War I exhibition explores trench warfare
Amitabh Sharma, Contributor
The fire of a machine gun and mortar spewing out shells greet visitors in a darkened room. In a corner sits a bunker that shields a soldier armed with a .303 Enfield rifle, crouched in the dirt, beside a 240mm mortar.
This is as close as reality can get to that time when human endurance was tested a century back, and World War I was to change the face of combat forever.
Scenes from that era have been captured and showcased at the An Empire at War exhibition at the Jamaican Military Museum and Library at Up Park Camp, headquarters of the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF).
This is the first of a two-part exhibition that explores the Jamaican reaction to the declaration of war by Britain August 4, 1914, said Captain Staci-Marie Dehaney, force curator, JDF.
The idea, Dehaney informed, is to acclimatise the people about the ground realities of World War I and the hardships the soldiers faced.
Many Jamaicans view the First World War as a far-removed historical fact from their daily lives and the Caribbean, she said. After all, it was a war fought across the seas.
Trench warfare, which evolved during the Great War, was the physical and the psychological barrier protecting the troops from the enemys small-arms fire and the oncoming artillery.
In World War I, both sides constructed trenches and dugouts, which were lined by barbwire, Dehaney said. In order to reach the enemy lines, the soldiers dug underground tunnels, but then there was the danger of getting blown by mortar shells.
DARK, GRIM CONDITIONS
The exhibit captures the dark and grim conditions.
The diorama gives the visitor the feeling of a what trench warfare was like, the JDF curator said. It is set in a dark space with lower roof to simulate the lowered trenches and the zigzagged space that soldiers trekked for four years at the Western Front.
The trenches provided some protection from the flying mortars, small-arms fire, constant barrage of explosions, but the continued psychological effect it had on the combat troops left some of them shell-shocked a term that is extensively used in English language today.
Shell shock describes the reaction of affected soldiers to the trauma of battle. The high decibel intensity of the bombardment and the shelling produced a condition leaving the distressed soldiers in a state of panic with an inability to reason, sleep, walk or talk.
Trench warfare had become an epitome for stalemate, erosion and futility in combat.
We are seeking to highlight the sentiments of Jamaicans in 1914 and the general concern and actions, Dehaney said. It explores the years 1914 to 1915 because the British West Indies Regiment was not established until 1915 and the first contingent did not leave until November 8, 1915.
To give that lifelike feel, Dehaney said, the museum has deployed multimedia with real audio of mortars and guns during the war; these sounds provide dramatic sound effects.
Trench warfare holds significance for this island nation, as Jamaicans who volunteered from 1917 were sent directly to the Western Front as labour corps to transport ammunition and dig trenches.
Snuggled in the dirt in an alien land, the combatant, a century ago, used his bare knuckles and modest means, not to navigate via satellite the pilotless drones, but to dig into the ground for survival, and some of them did survive.
War does not determine who is right only who is left, once said Bertrand Russell, British philosopher, logician, mathe-matician, historian, and social critic.
Some of those men did live to tell those tales.