Meaux, France — The trenches, trench warfare is immediately associated with World War I and would inevitably become a tragic symbol of the Great War. It was in the trenches that the soldiers on both sides fought, lived, waited and died. The holes were dug for protection starting in 1914 and they would turn into a defensive system which as the war bogged down would become a network of tunnels and rooms and would eventually lead to a strategic and tactical blocking of the conflict. For as in Julian Gracq’s powerful novel The Opposing Shore, a novel of waiting between two fictional countries at war, the trenches were all about protection and waiting, waiting, waiting.
The Musée de la Grande Guerre (The Museum of the Great War) in Meaux, sits in the midst of the Marne Valley, one of the major theaters of World War I. The museum, mainly drawing on its extensive collections and with loans from other museums, is currently featuring a temporary exhibition devoted to the trenches through more than 300 objects, maps, archives and videos enabling the visitor to understand the nature of what French historian and the curator of the exhibition François Cochet terms the System-Trenches.
The visitor takes a three-fold path starting with a presentation of how the trenches were conceived and used and explains how the natural reflex of survival was to build an underground hole — starting in August of 1914 — as protection from enemy fire. These holes would progressively become linked together connected by narrow tube-like paths and were transformed into the trenches, embedding the fighters into a complex and impregnable network that covered 700 kilometers linking the North Sea to Switzerland.
The second act of the exhibition takes a look at the geological and geographical diversity of the trenches and the complexity of the System-Trenches and how this system involved a new way of conducting war and modified the life of the solders whose life revolved around them, although they would only spend short times in the trenches themselves, alternating their front-line positions with secondary and back ones. The third part of the show takes a look at how the trenches were represented in the press of the times until the present. Videos are on display and one period video shows soldiers in the trenches, where some solders brought their dogs, eating, having their uniforms repaired and smoking cigarettes.
For Mr. Cochet some of the most emblematic objects in the exhibition are the barbed wire, certain weapons, digging tools and daily objects. « The trench is a defensive place. The elements that best embody this dimension are the barbed wire in front of the trenches of one’s own side to prevent the enemy from approaching but also the machine guns that would immediately put an end to an enemy attack. Other arms also evoke trench warfare, like the curved cannons, grenades and rifles but as well objects like shovels and pickaxes, and objects for life in the trenches like lamps, camping stoves, rat traps and so forth, » commented the historian.
The Musée de la Grande Guerre in Meaux, which opened its doors on November 11th, 2011 on the land of the first Battle of the Marne, is the largest museum in Europe devoted to World War I and is regarded as institution of reference for the history of the Great War.The trenches exhibition is on through January 2nd, 2023.
©Trish Valicenti for The Gourmet Gazette
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