Experiencing the Realities of War Through Life In the Trenches

In today’s world, when asked about technology, we think of hardware like smart phones and tablets or web 2.0 tools. Back in the early 1900’s, technology advancement led to the end of trench warfare.  As part of our WW 1 history unit, my gr. 7/8 students learned first-hand how soldiers used technology as they experienced life in the trenches.

Students traveled on a 2.5 hour bus ride to the Outdoor Trench Warfare and Living History Site in rural Tillsonburg to experience the hardships faced by Canadian WW I soldiers in the trenches.  They were guided by award-winning history teacher Robin Barker-James in the strategies used by soldiers as they struggled to survive and defend what they believed in.

As my student, Brad P., described it, “Robin Barker-James has a farm just outside of Tillsonburg where he and his Gr.10 history class dug replica trenches from WWI to host schools and teach them about trench warfare.  The trenches at Mr. Barker-James’ farm are very real, in fact so real that the Canadian military has trained there before heading to Afghanistan. There was even a movie shot there.”

During the morning session, students learned how to fight using bayonets and grenades, and Robin shared his collection of authentic WW 1 artifacts with the class.

In the afternoon, my girls played the role of the Canadians, and attacked the German-held trenches (my male students), “armed” with replica grenades, Ross rifles and the coveted Lewis machine gun. While the reenactment was without danger, students clearly began to feel the fear, chaos and discomfort that was reality for the generations before them.

Robin has guided over 70 000 students in the past decade through his site.  He specializes in providing a common sense, hands-on and concrete learning experience for students studying war.  The following day, I asked students to write about the experience, including a monologue and the lessons they had learned.

From the “Canadian” girls….

Nataja:  I learned that we need to work together as a team to survive.

Alyssa: The helmets were very hard to keep on your head, especially when you had to crawl.  And, they often dug into the back of your neck, which was very uncomfortable. I was tired and I was getting frustrated with  my team, but in a way that is a good thing.  It made us see some of what the soldiers had to go through in a daily basis.

Kori ‘s monologue:  The waiting is unbearable, because I don’t know what exactly am I waiting for. Am I waiting for excitement, or am I just waiting for this to be over? I think the most clear message was that war is not a game. What we did in the field at Robin’s farm may not have been real, but turning the corners in the trenches was still nerve wracking. I can’t begin to imagine what that would be like in a real war.

And from the “German” boys…

Iain’s monologue:  I feel sick, my stomachs churning due to the nerve racking moments about to happen. The enemy is almost here, I can hear them. I’m really scared, even though I have my best friend Isaac a few metres from me.  

Jason: I learned that war causes just as much psychological damage as physical damage. I learned about the hardships the men had to endure in and outside of the trench line. The saddest part was when Robin told me how many men had died for our freedom.  It was the most interesting field trip that involved learning I have ever been on.

Tyler: The experience of that day will never leave me….. Like Mr. Barker-James said, “If you are asked to send yourself or your kids into warfare, you better have a pretty darn good reason to.” I don’t think it could have been said better.

Can you feel it? These students, who 24 hrs. earlier saw trench warfare as a game, now have a more realistic understanding as they question the validity of war – exactly what Robin intended. My gr. 7 students are keen to travel back to Tillsonburg next year to participate in Robin’s re-enactments of the War of 1812 and WW II. There’s even a few gr. 8’s, who will no longer be at my school, begging to return with us. Powerful and authentic learning.

Flickr slideshow


2 thoughts on “Experiencing the Realities of War Through Life In the Trenches

  1. I’ve always considered simulations of war and/or other potentially traumatic experiences very tricky business. I’ve worried that students might underestimate/under-appreciate the power and impact of the event for having ‘lived through it’ in simulation, OR that they would be somehow scarred by the reenactment. In this case, the insights your students gained are so blatantly evident in their reflections and monologues, that it is clear that you and Robin Barker-James provided students with an expertly planned and executed learning experience.

  2. Following the student responses, you asked, “Can you feel it”? Boy, could I ever feel it! As I read I felt my stomach tightening and my head pounding as I read what your students were describing about their experience. Unbelievable! Field trips are supposed to be educational…..I am sure that there aren’t many to top the lessons that were learned on this trip. Thanks so much for sharing the learning that took place.

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