World War I started after the assassination of Austria-Hungary’s Archduke Ferdinand and was the result of complicated interlocking alliances between the Balkan States and much of Europe. At the breakout of the war, President Woodrow Wilson declared that the United States would remain a neutral party – a policy that most Americans stood behind.
However, after a German U-boat sank the Lusitania, a British ocean liner, which resulted in the death of more than 100 Americans, the public opinion quickly began to shift. That opinion continued to rapidly change after it was discovered that Germany attempted to form an Alliance with Mexico – forcing President Wilson to ask Congress to declare war against the German empire.
The U.S. would officially enter the war in 1917. Nearly one year later, the first German offensive against American troops would take place in the small French village of Seicheprey. Many of the Americans on the other end of this attack belonged to Connecticut’s 102nd Infantry Regiment. It was a battle that resulted in heavy casualties on both sides but also formed a bond between a small French village and an entire U.S. state.
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the battle, fifteen Connecticut high school students traveled to Seicheprey to help restore a section of the trenches occupied by Connecticut Soldiers. Working alongside fifteen French students, their goal was to create a historic attraction to help spur tourism in the area.
On November 15, 2019, the students and chaperones from the trip shared their stories and experiences during a presentation at the William A. O’Neill State Armory in Hartford, Connecticut. Each student was honored for their service as a student ambassador on behalf of the state and country by State Senator Paul Formica, Lt. Col. Frank Tantillo, commander of the 102nd Infantry Regiment, and representatives for other state and local officials.
“I want to thank you for being a part of our Regimental history that goes back to 1636 … I’m really proud that we have students who took the time out of their summer to go and literally dig into a piece of our history,” said Tantillo. “I wish I could’ve been there with you; what an experience.”
During the three-week program, the students re-dug trenches using pickaxes, rebuilt the trench walls and bunkers with trees they harvested locally, and uncovered artifacts such as barbed wire, ammunition casings – including fragments from German hand grenades – and uniform buttons.
While the program was designed to teach the students about American and Connecticut military history, it also helped foster growth and create lifelong memories and friendships.
“While most experiences abroad expand one’s own mindset and worldview, our trip to France brought about not only personal growth but state and national growth as well,” said Aaron Cohen, a Ridgefield High School student. “In a project which, on day one, I thought unlikely or impossible, our group restored a trench from World War I: a crucial piece of history, and the missing link between different places across the world from one another. All in all, the trip taught me that reaching back and reconnecting is imperative – after all, you might find friends you didn’t even know existed.”
Prior to traveling overseas, the group of students held three meetings to get to know one another. One of the meetings also paired each student with a family of descendants of a 102nd Soldier to learn more about those who fought in the area they were visiting.
“This trip was something that textbooks can never teach you,” said Lillith Davies-Smith, one of the students who participated in the program. “I was able to learn about the life of a fallen hero and make sure he’s never forgotten.”
In addition to giving new life to the legacy of the Soldiers who fought in this war, the project also aimed to continue and strengthen the friendship between the town of Seicheprey and the state of Connecticut, which has deeper roots than just sharing a common battlefield. After German forces shelled the town in their assault on the 102nd, the citizens of Connecticut raised $5,000 to help restore the water supply during reconstruction efforts. The state also gifted a fountain to the town which still stands today.
Although they’re not sure exactly how much trench they restored, the organizers of the program know they’re not done – rebuilding and educating – and hope to send a second group of students in the summer of 2021.
The Digging Through History program was created by the Connecticut Heritage Foundation on behalf of the Connecticut State Library. To learn more about the program, visit their website: https://ctinworldwar1.org/trenchproject/.