Mass. Military History Expo relives key World War I battle

  • Reenactors at World War I Days in Orange depict American Expeditionary Forces reclaiming their encampment from dead and surrendering Germans. STAFF PHOTO/DAVID McLELLAN

  • Reenactors at World War I Days in Orange depict American Expeditionary Forces reclaiming their encampment from dead and surrendering Germans. STAFF PHOTO/DAVID McLELLAN

  • Reenactors at World War I Days in Orange depict German infantry charging through "the fog of war" to storm American trenches. STAFF PHOTO/DAVID McLELLAN

  • Reenactors at World War I Days in Orange depict German infantry charging through "the fog of war" to storm American trenches. STAFF PHOTO/DAVID McLELLAN

  • Reenactors at World War I Days in Orange depict American Expeditionary Forces defending their trench from the incoming German attack. STAFF PHOTO/DAVID McLELLAN

  • Reenactors at World War I Days in Orange depict a American medic tending to a wounded doughboy after an attack by German and Ottoman infantry. STAFF PHOTO/DAVID McLELLAN

Staff Writer
Published: 9/9/2019 1:05:10 AM

ORANGE — It was in northern France in 1918, the Second Battle of the Marne, when allied troops repelled the German Empire’s last major offensive in World War I.

Hundreds of thousands were killed in three weeks of bloodshed, but an allied victory started the 100-day countdown to the end of “the Great War.”

Saturday and Sunday were the Massachusetts Military History Expo’s “World War I Days,” an annual event at the Orange Municipal Airport featuring authentic World War I uniforms, weaponry, vehicles and technology.

The major focus this year was on the reenactments, dressed-up portrayals of what a French battlefield may have looked like in 1918, complete with explosions, mustard gas grenades, trenches and barbed wire.

But Saturday’s final reenactment wasn’t just a generic, pretend shootout in World War I-era uniforms, it was meant as a specific depiction of the Second Battle of the Marne, which, despite ultimately being a major victory, was replete with the suicidal tactics that defined “the war to end all wars.”

“Mustard gas in particular was a blister agent, so it will get in your lungs, cause blisters in your lungs, your lungs will fill with fluid and that will eventually kill you,” said Rick Tucker with the Massachusetts Military History Expo.

As Tucker said this, American Expeditionary Forces reenactors were quickly putting on their gas masks, hoping the gas grenades they had just hurled would stymie the approaching German infantry. They didn’t.

With the shrill blow of a whistle, Germans charged from their positions on the other side of the battlefield. Some dropped to the ground immediately, hit by sniper fire as they exposed themselves in no-man’s land.

“Sticking your head up over the trench is usually a death sentence,” Tucker said.

But enough Germans were not hit, and they waded through “the fog of war” — a melding of smoke and poison gas. Seconds later, they were firing down at Americans in their trenches. All the American forces could do was retreat, regroup, and, in a reversal of roles, come back to storm the now-German trenches.

“You see the moments of absolute sheer chaos and terror during these battles,” Tucker said. “They (the soldiers) don’t want to do this. There are instances with the French forces with mutiny, where entire units refused to fight. They were tired of being used as cannon fodder.”

The Massachusetts Military History Expo’s main event in May, as well as World War I Days, has plenty to do and see, with demonstrations, old vehicles, food vendors and antique technology on display — one such piece this year was a portable kitchen, essentially an iron oven on wheels, used first in World War I to bring meals directly to troops on the battlefield. There were also hundreds of feet of simulated trenches for visitors to walk when they weren’t in use.

“This has been very well received,” said Missi Eaton, one of the event organizers, adding that people have been amused to see the kitchen-on-wheels still functional, her husband having cooked breakfast on it Saturday morning.

But what is “special” about the event, said Missi Eaton’s husband, organizer Dan Eaton, are reenactments like the Second Battle of the Marne. World War I ended more than a century ago, and without living veterans to tell what it was like, reenactments and events like World War I Days are important in keeping knowledge of the war in the public consciousness.

“This was the last great push by Germany and it’s allies,” said Dan Eaton. “But the Allied Forces (France, the U.S. and the British Empire, among others) pushed them back, their supplies eventually ran down, and it signified the last 100 days of the war.”

Even by conservative estimates, World War I claimed tens of millions of lives between July 28, 1914 and Nov. 11, 1918, a day which is still celebrated in many countries as “Armistice Day,” and is known in the U.S. as Veterans Day.

The assassination of Austria-Hungary’s heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and subsequent declaration of war by Austria-Hungary against Serbia set off a chain reaction. The complex web of European alliances brought other countries into the war, and eventually the U.S. joined the conflict in 1917.

By the end of it, the war would have some far-reaching effects on the world. The Russian Empire became the Soviet Union, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empires disbanded, and millions of people had died.

In the center of Orange, at its Memorial Park, still sits the official peace statue of Massachusetts, depicting a uniformed U.S. soldier who has returned from the war in Europe, and is placing his hand on the back of a young boy, who holds a book under one arm and an outstretched fist in the other.

Written on the monument are the words, “It shall not be again.”

Reach David McLellan at dmclellan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 268.




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