Students in Canada Are Stunned to Learn About WW I

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Walking through a mock-up of a First World War trench delighted them. Inspecting antique artillery pieces fascinated them. And a massive diorama of the Passchendaele battlefield, where a body lays drowned in mud and blood, thrilled them. But it was a loop of silent movie clips, replayed over and over on a tiny video screen, that brought them up short.

Twenty young teens, the Grade 10 students from Manotick's St. Mark High School we've challenged to reconnect with their own and Canada's past, were stunned to silence by the flickering black-and-white images that haunt a small corner of exhibit space in the Canadian War Museum's First World War gallery.

The film shows men, some not much older than these 14- and 15-year-olds, reduced to quivering wrecks, their minds trapped in a nightmare we can only imagine.

Not all the human havoc of the First World War is marked by crosses or measured in scar tissue. The strategies of war-making lagged far behind the technological means of waging it in 1914, which meant soldiers were ordered to race insanely across rutted fields into the teeth of machine guns when they weren't huddling in trenches beneath a curtain of shellfire.

Modern warfare caused unprecedented combat stress, and men succumbed to it in such numbers that the military brass eventually had to recognize the fits of trembling and incapacitation as something other than cowardice or malingering.

They called it shell-shock, and its effects, captured on film, is what made our students gather in a grave knot, transfixed. Images of men in the throes of induced madness would give anyone pause, but for these students, it seems, there was something more.

For the past few weeks, they have been turning dry history into warm flesh by a simple act of will. Their research has begun to give relevance to stories that had once seemed as long ago and far away as fairy tales. They have seen handwritten records of the wounds, diseases and hardships that befell the handful of men they've chosen to research, all close relatives of classmates. They've seen the soldiers' pictures, put faces to facts, made connections that require more than mere logic. They have begun to refer to their research subjects "our soldiers" or "our guys."

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