This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. For some of us the first world war can be difficult to fathom because of its magnitude. It’s a war that killed tens of millions of people and wounded tens of millions more. It happened thousands of miles away, mostly “over there” in Europe. A new exhibit at Harvard University attempts to help us understand the true scope and the lasting impact of the Great War.
It is perhaps fitting that to reach the World War I map exhibit you have to head underground as if descending into a military bunker. It’s here, in the bowels of Harvard’s Pusey Library, where I meet Bonnie Burns, curator of “From the Alps to the Ocean: Maps of the Western Front.”
“The maps themselves are beautiful,” Burns said. “They’re amazing just to look at. The colors that they used, the water colors that they used to visualize the battle.”
There are about 30 maps, most of them in color and each of them focused on the minutiae of combat: trench soil maps, propaganda maps, and supply chains. The centerpiece is a mammoth, 9-foot tall map that Burns and her team created. It shows the entire Western Front over all four years. Burns points to a vivid ribbon cutting across the whole of France and Belgium.
“We’re looking at a solid line,” she said. “We have the German trench lines in blue and the Allied trench lines in red.”
Working off 200 different maps, Burns painstakingly recreated every last trench, every hellish detail from the entire war.
“In certain areas the lines are so much, much thicker and you can just tell that that’s a particular area where the troops were for a very long time,” she said.
It is striking how narrow the ribbon is and how little the trenches moved over four years of brutal fighting that pounded the same place day after day.
“It really shows what the soldiers were going through, especially if you know that these trenches weren’t dug with earth moving machines,” Burns said. “These were shovels. So looking at some of these maps really shows the scale of the war and the horror of it all.”
Historian Richard Rubin met me at the exhibit to talk about the people who fought in the trenches. Rubin interviewed dozens of them while researching his book, “The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War.”
“One of the most remarkable people that I interviewed was a gentleman named J. Laurence Moffitt who lived out in Orleans on Cape Cod, and he was 106 when I met him in 2003,” Rubin said.
Corporal Moffitt served in the U.S. Army’s 26th Division, the famed “Yankee Division,” made up of regiments from New England.
“They were the first division to ship across whole to France,” Rubin said. “They arrived early in the fall of 1917 and they participated in pretty much every major action that American troops participated in, in that war.”
What was Moffitt’s experience of the trenches? Rubin says forget those wide, open trenches you see in historical dramas like Downton Abbey.
“The trenches were just a terrible place to be. They were filthy. They were muddy. They were infested with rats and lice,” Rubin said. “There was a tremendous amount of tedium. The old saying that war is boredom punctuated by moments of terror was especially true for that war.”
That was certainly true for Private Anthony Pierro from Swampscott, Mass., who served in an artillery unit in 1917. He told Rubin about his moment of terror “over there.”
Our tour of the exhibit finishes with a map drawn up after the guns of World War I fell silent in November 1918. It is a map by Harvard professor Robert Lord, proposing new borders for Poland — one of the many maps the allies consulted as they redrew political boundaries around the world — all part of a flawed effort to ensure lasting peace. Soon “The War to End All Wars” would spawn a century of conflict.
The exhibit, “From the Alps to the Ocean: Maps of the Western Front,” is open to the public at Harvard’s Pusey Library until November 11 — Armistice Day.
For more information:
WGBH News contributor and The GroundTruth Project founder Charlie Sennott discussed the unlearned lessons of World War I on Greater Boston: