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Constance Alexander: Oral history and the arts tell relevant stories of the past

July 1, 2016, marked one-hundred years since the beginning of the devastating Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest of World War I. Dragging on for four months, it incurred more than a million casualties on both sides. By the time it finally ended – November of 1916 – the Allies had advanced less than 10 miles.

A new book, “The Great War,” by political cartoonist Joe Sacco, re-creates the first day of the Somme in a 24-foot long panorama. The images are rendered in relentless detail, starting with the beginning of the day, moving into the heartbreaking battle itself, and then the aftermath.

Led by British General Douglas Haig, the fierce bombardments that preceded the battle were intended to wipe out enough of the German troops so the Brits could move in and take over their positions. Although the bombardment was fierce enough to be heard in London’s Hampstead Heath, the intended outcome did not occur.

When the bombast quieted down, the Germans climbed out of their trenches and manned the machine guns. As the British marched toward them in single-line formations, the Germans mowed them down. By nightfall, 57,470 officers and men had fallen or were missing. Over 19,000 were killed or died from their wounds.

Ask most Americans about the Somme, and it is likely they would know nothing about it. Go ahead and inquire about World War I and the U.S. role in it, and the response is likely to be equally vague.

How strange and sad that a whole war can be swallowed into history with barely a trace. If history tends to repeat itself, as the old saying goes, we need to start paying attention.

Murray State University’s Pogue Library breaches the gap with a collection that represents the history and culture of the Jackson Purchase Area of Southwest Kentucky. Through support from the Kentucky Historical Society, the Pogue Library was able to digitize oral history recordings of World War I veterans from the region, and the interviews are available online, for free.

Residents from Mayfield, Murray, and McCracken County, among others, told their stories in the early 1980s. One, Mr. Hughie Butler, of Fulton, Ky., entered the Navy, was sent to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station near Chicago, and sailed to France for overseas duty on the U.S.S. Leviathan. In his interview, he discusses basic training, the voyage across the Atlantic, the 1918 flu epidemic, and his duties as a sterile nurse. When he came home, he observed many changes – in himself and his community.

A number of those interviewed for the Pogue project were African Americans who served in WWI. William G. Davis, from Paducah, talked about a race riot in Camp Murray in New Jersey. He also detailed the poor treatment of black units by other American units during the war, and the persistence of segregation upon returning home.

Another black veteran, Andrew Carmon from Jimtown, Ky., described the ways foreign people treated African American soldiers during WWI. He talked about being wounded in battle and being reassigned to the front lines after he was released from the hospital. Life in the trenches was another memory he retained from the war, and he spoke of the mementos he brought back, including a pebble, a helmet, a mess kit, and a tiny leather-bound bible.

A Hazel native, Dewey Williams, recounted his experiences during the war and the Great Depression that followed it ten years later. He recalled his military training, being “shell-shocked,” and – like so many others from the region — his post-war search for work in Detroit.

These and many other interviews are available in the Pogue collection at http://goo.gl/Mbkazw. World War I service records are online through the Historical Society Website at http://goo.gl/hKX3jk. A scrapbook of WWI photographs and memorabilia of Roy W. Hoewischer, from Fort Thomas, can be accessed at http://goo.gl/hjyKPW. A 6-minute video prepared by Joe Sacco, author/cartoonist of “The Great War” is at https://vimeo.com/76336385.

No study of war is complete without the literature it inspired. The Academy of American Poets assembled a collection of WWI poetry and information in honor of the 100th anniversary of the war. Access this site at http://goo.gl/H2M0Eo.


Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommuications in Murray, Ky. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit her website.

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