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Exhibit digs deep into WWI history

The Penn State Libraries “From the Trenches” exhibit features rare images from World War I from the perspective of the common foot soldier or embedded photojournalist.
The Penn State Libraries “From the Trenches” exhibit features rare images from World War I from the perspective of the common foot soldier or embedded photojournalist. Photos provided

If a picture can tell a thousand words, then the Penn State Libraries’ latest exhibit, “From the Trenches: The Great War in Sepia,” could fill volumes. Running through May 5, this collection of 55 images coincides with the 100th anniversary of the United States entering World War I and provides an intimate look at what life was like on the battlefield.

“The idea behind the exhibit was to reproduce single panel enlarged images from the original glass plate views to draw the viewer into the World War I experience from the eyes or perspective of the common foot soldier or embedded photojournalist,” said curator Jim Quigel. “Many of the images are visceral and compelling and ultimately tell the story of enduring humanity in the face of war.”

Although these events occurred a century ago, this exhibition manages to capture the chaos that surrounded those in battle. As silly as it may sound, perhaps the most important aspect about “From the Trenches” is its ability to remind audiences that such an event even occurred. These photos are educational tools that convey an unfiltered peek of the world at war.

“There are many scenes of the brutal destruction and hardships associated with the war, most notably trench warfare,” Quigel said. “Several of the exhibition cases and images are quite graphic with dead soldiers on the battlefield and in trenches with downtrodden, captured and wounded POWs. The environmental destruction is also captured in one haunting image of splintered trees, mud, spent bomb shells embedded in the ground and pock-marked landscape which was once a pristine forest.”

With Frank Buckles, the last U.S. World War I veteran, passing in 2011, “From the Trenches” serves as essential record keeping. It reminds audiences that its veterans, at one point in time, surrounded all of us, making WWI hit even closer to home.

“The Great War, and very soon World War II and the Korean Conflict, are passing from our collective memory as each generation has passed or is passing from the scene,” Quigel said. “Even though motion picture film was beginning to come of age concurrent with war, the photographic record and photographic journalism of World War I brought the horrors of modern warfare — a war of then unprecedented scope and scale — to civilians behind the front lines. Many people and their families have a generational link to the Great War and the imagination is stoked with what their great-grandfathers or great-grandmothers may have experienced during the great conflict.”

In addition to showing the horrors of war, the photos featured in “From the Trenches” also highlight the resiliency of the human spirit. This collection puts a face on the often faceless souls who fought, and the humanity offered in these photos is truly stunning.

“The trench scenes are especially compelling with common foot soldiers hunkered down and seeking shelter from the elements or burrowed into to earthen dug-outs for protection against enemy shelling,” Quigel said. “We have another trench scene where a French soldier is posing and tending to his dog, most likely a service dog. The image is compelling and draws you in. It shows the bond of man and man’s best friend under the worst conditions and makes you wonder what the soldier and dog have experienced together in the trenches.”

The aftermath of the Great War continues to reverberate throughout the world, impacting decision making on a global scale. “From the Trenches” offers viewers the opportunity to witness the opening chapter of these still relevant roots taking hold.

“This exhibit will draw people into that world we have lost and to reflect, if for only for a few minutes, on the enormity of the cost of the Great War and how it has shaped our modern world and many of our present-day geopolitical issues,” Quigel said. “It is a chance to be transported back in time to reconnect with this lost world. A chance to understand the enormous costs of a world war and the sacrifices of our U.S. servicemen, servicewomen and our allies in defending freedom and democracy.”

IF YOU GO

  • What: “From the Trenches: The Great War in Sepia”
  • When: through May 5
  • Where: Eberly Family Special Collections Library, University Park
  • Info: libraries.psu.edu
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