Article and photos by Martin Vaught
Public Affairs Officer, Indiana Military Museum
Artillery roared and guns rattled across the shell-cratered mud of “No-Man’s Land” on a chilly weekend in March, as the Indiana Military Museum (IMM) hosted its second annual public event commemorating the centennial of The Great War, known now as the First World War.
Focused on being a family-friendly, entertaining and educational event, the Great War weekend was conceived as a means to recognize World War One over the next five years to coincide with the one hundredth anniversary. Plans call for varying displays each year to illustrate the evolution in combatants’ uniforms, weapons, equipment and tactics.
Gates to the Museum’s multi-acre site opened to the public at 9:00a.m., allowing visitors to roam at will through the various encampments and displays. Food was provided onsite, with vendors selling bratwurst and pork barbeque sandwiches, popcorn, and soft drinks. Battle reenactments were scheduled at 11:00a.m., 1:00p.m. and 3:00p.m. each day. Presenters gave a short overview at the start of each battle scenario, explaining the differences in uniforms and weapons from 1914 through 1918. Bleachers provided seating for the hundreds of spectators. After each scenario, the public was invited to tour the trench, meet the reenactors, ask questions, and view the weapons up close. Photo opportunities were a hit with young and old alike. Gates closed at 4:00p.m. each day.
The centerpiece of the weekend’s event was the reconstruction of an authentic trench, which stretched nearly 100 yards long and featured many of the methods of construction used by both sides during the four year conflict. Build out of the trench was intentionally made with wider floors to enable the public to navigate through the scene with greater ease. Trench warfare presentations were made by reenactors as the public moved through the site.
The project was the brainchild of IMM founder and executive director Jim Osborne, who kicked off the trench construction last summer in time to commemorate the centennial of the war’s start in 1914. Last year’s event was much smaller, consisting of only static displays. Photos posted to social media and word- of-mouth endorsements by participants sparked the interest of multiple reenactors in the Midwest to attend this year. Approximately 40 reenactors participated, outfitted as French, British, South African, Scottish, American and German soldiers.
Battle scenarios included attacks across a recreation of “no man’s land” in front of the trench, complete with shell craters, a wrecked 75mm cannon, damaged tree trunks and strung barbed wire.
Simulated poison gas attacks were announced with the sounds of original alarms. As smoke grenades suddenly generated clouds of white and yellow smoke, reenactors quickly donned reproduction gas masks.
Staged static displays around the Museum grounds allowed the public to interact and talk with historical interpreters as they received up-close views of life in the camps and in the trenches.
The IMM’s ultra-rare Renault Hospital Truck, thought to be the last of its kind in the world, was kitted out with French gear and field medical equipment, with a living history interpreter to explain its use by Allied doctors.
The Museum displayed five authentic, original artillery guns set up in static displays with shells and ammunition boxes, range-finding periscopes, and working field telephones to show the importance of artillery in the war. Included were British, French and American guns. Too valuable to be taken outside, the Museum’s rare German Howitzer was displayed inside.
Inside the Museum, specially selected artifacts from the IMM’s extensive collection were put on display, including Kaiser Wilhelm’s naval ensign (flown only when he was aboard ship), uniforms, helmets, field gear, weapons, and many artifacts actually recovered from European battlefields.
“We’ve had tremendous response from the public, and we fully intend to continue this event through the next several years, building on and adding to the displays and events, until we celebrate the centennial of the Armistice and the end of the Great War in 2018,” explained Osborne.
The success of this year’s event promises to bring even greater growth of the event next year, with expectation of over one hundred reenactors participating. Based on enthusiastic comments from both the reenactors and the public, they intend to spread the word about the IMM’s event to others.
Located in the state’s oldest city, Vincennes, on the Wabash River in southwest Indiana, the Indiana Military Museum’s mission is to honor the nation’s veterans of all eras. With over fifty vehicles, eight aircraft and tens of thousands of smaller artifacts in its collections, the IMM covers the entire span of the nation’s military history, from pre-Revolutionary times, the French & Indian Wars of the frontier, and every American conflict up to and including current actions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The IMM will next host its 8th Annual “Salute to Veterans of WWII” event on September 5th and 6th, the Saturday and Sunday of Labor Day weekend. During that event, the Museum brings out its Sherman and Stuart tanks, White Halftrack, assorted Jeeps and other vehicles. The WWII immersion experience includes elaborate encampments, a recreation of an Atlantic Wall Bunker, and battle reenactments.
For more information, visit the Museum’s website at www.indianamilitarymuseum.org or like its Facebook page.