USMA team recreates 'Stand To' ritual on World War I AIAD in France
By Maj. Deborah Daly
Department of English and Philosophy
WEST POINT, N.Y. (Aug. 26, 2014) — Fifteen U.S. Military Academy cadets and five officers began a circuitous journey, one early June morning, through the rolling farmlands of Northern France.
The destination: the remnants of an obscure World War I trench line known as Point 110, outside of Fricourt.
Authors Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon immortalized this particular section of the Western Front in their poignant WWI memoirs “Good-bye to All That” and “Memoirs of an Infantry Officer.” During the early part of the 1916 Somme Offensive, Graves and Sassoon—both junior officers in the Royal Welch Fusiliers—were assigned as platoon leaders in this particular sector and chronicled their impressions of the battle and the war more broadly.
Inspired by reading Sassoon and Graves’ experiences, this USMA team purposefully trekked to Point 110 to commemorate the experience of these poignant authors—and of the millions of soldiers who fought at the Somme, while recreating one of the most well-known rituals of the Great War—the “Stand-To.”
In the beginning
This Academic Individual Advanced Development, or AIAD, began during the spring semester with a broad discussion of the war’s history gained from reading Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson’s “The First World War.” During Graduation Week, AIAD preparation became intense as cadets immersed themselves in research about specific battles and locations of interest in France and Belgium, and they read both Graves’ semi-autobiographical memoir and a wide assortment of poems by soldier-writers. This would prove valuable as it familiarized cadets with many of the places that we would visit during the trip, and it made those places significant in a personal way.
Throughout the week, cadet teams studied battles and those who memorialized them and met to brief the cadets on other teams about the battles that they had examined; during these sessions, they highlighted particularly important sites in France and Belgium and helped fellow cadets to appreciate the individuals whose lives and deaths have become synonymous with those battlefields. These briefings not only raised operational and strategic questions--many of which are still debated by academics today--but also revealed the potential for inconsistency between historical records and individual recollection, prompting the group to consider what these inconsistencies suggest about soldiers’ experiences and the historical records that emerge after a war has concluded.
In the trenches
After arriving in France on May 31, the cadets were able to explore many of the sites that they studied during Graduation Week. Many of these were locations of major offensives like the Marne, Loos, Verdun, the Somme, the Ypres Salient in Belgium, Passchendaele, the Hindenburg Line; some were sites of American offensives at Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood, while other destinations included the major memorials and well-known gravesites of the war. Not surprisingly, after 100 years, the majority of the trench networks in France and Belgium have been reclaimed by nature or agriculture, making it challenging to determine the exact locations of the trench lines.
In many places, however, the memory of the Great War still lingers in the form of cemeteries or shell holes, and sometimes both. In the area of the Somme, for example, the Lochnagar Mine Crater, an enormous testament to the awesome power of mines and the troglodyte world responsible for their construction, remains a protected historical space in the middle of farmland; improvised trenches created by the South Africans fighting in the massacre known as Delville Wood exist relatively untouched near the museum that commemorates that country’s participation in both World Wars.
Both of these sites prompted intense discussions and debates about the tactical and operational benefits of mining—a discussion that would continue when the group visited Hill 60 outside of Ypres, Belgium. They also prompted conversations about the motivations of soldiers in long protracted wars, particularly about the colonial soldiers who fought in the European war and the choices that those colonies made to commemorate and memorialize the sacrifices of their soldiery.
Another subject of intense discussion was the number of technological innovations like chemical weapons, tanks, aviation assets, ordnance, transportation, and medicine that the four years of brutal trench warfare inspired. While discussing such innovations, cadets had an opportunity to think about their professional future in the Officer Corps and Army as innovators and leaders.
Class of 2016 Cadet Peter Kenna noted the impact that studying La Voie Sacrée, or “the Sacred Road,” had on his understanding of the role of logistics in operational maneuvers. He expressed an interest to branch Transportation Corps for quite some time and this experience demonstrated how vital transportation and resupply can be to winning the fight on the front line.The French memorial to the La Voie Sacrée is dedicated to their Transportation Corps and its impact on the resupply efforts along the Western Front, especially during the Battle of Verdun.
“The Sacred Way is a testament to how behind-the-scenes operations are essential to the fight on the front lines; our visit to the memorial inspired me to further my education on logistics and branch Transportation in the future,” Kenna said.
In discussions of the literature of the period, cadets also had a chance to muse on the ways in which junior leaders are capable of changing the “Face of Battle.” Readings from Herbert McBride’s A Rifleman Went to War demonstrated how critical thinking at the company and platoon levels led to more effective tactical protocols for snipers. Not only did the trip help cadets understand how different branches and armies work together in joint and combined operations, it also enabled them to consider the history of our Army and their role as its future leaders. Such revelations and discussions would continue throughout the trip, summer training, and now headlong into the fall semester as cadets compose academic papers inspired by their experiences in France and Belgium.
The best of these papers will be featured in an academic conference commemorate the 100th anniversary of the “war to end all wars” sponsored by both the Department of English and Philosophy and the Department of History.
During this conference, which is timed to commemorate the beginning of that war's most salient feature, trench warfare, academics from around the world will consider both the literature inspired by trench warfare and the memory of it in modern consciousness.
Event — First World War Conference: "Literature, Memory and the First World War"
Date — Sept. 11-14
Where — Jefferson Hall; Haig Room
Entitled “Literature, Memory, and the First World War,” this conference is scheduled Sept. 11-14 and will involve nearly 100 scholars in the three and a half day event, which includes the presentation of papers from cadets who participated in the AIAD. The event will provide scholars, cadets, and community members a venue to engage in scholarly dialogue regarding the literature and memory of WWI and celebrate the value of the humanities in the preparation of soldiers and scholars for service to the nation. The conference will feature displays by the West Point Museum and the West Point Library’s Special Collections; we hope to showcase not only period pieces but also West Point’s contributions to the Great War and our effort to learn from it.
This conference is the second of a three part of a series of events supported by the two departments, designed to promote awareness of the significance of WWI and aid in the academic development of cadets both abroad and in the classroom. Both departments are offering courses in the academic year inspired by and focusing on Great War topics.
The Department of English & Philosophy will offer an elective course to majors entitled The Literature of the Great War (EP390) during which cadets, many of whom also participated on the AIAD, will continue their engagement with canonical Great War writers. The Department of History will also offer elective and core courses that focus, to a great degree, upon the Great War; these include Strategy, Policy, and Generalship (HI358), Modern Germany (HI343), and History of the Military Art (HI302).
Lt. Col. Jason Musteen orients Cadets Tim Koglin (USMA ’17), Jim Trollan (USMA ’16) and Sarah Bitner (APL major, USMA ’16) to the First Battle of the Marne. Within hours of arriving in France, the AIAD team stopped at the Marne location.
Fifteen U.S. Military Academy cadets traveled France in June on an Academic Individual Advanced Development, or AIAD. Pictured, they peruse the names listed on the Menin Gate, a memorial dedicated to the memory of soldiers killed in the Ypres Salient in Belgium whose final resting place remains unknown. The memorial displays the names of over 54,000 Allied soldiers. After touring the memorial, cadets had the opportunity to see the “Last Post” ceremony conducted by the citizens of Ypres; the ceremony takes place every evening and has been carried on uninterrupted since 1928.
World War I AIAD: A Closer Look
By Maj. Deborah Daly
Department of English and Philosophy
We arrived at the remote copse of trees in the middle of what is now a wheat field at 0430 and proceeded on foot into a wooded area surrounded by farmland. The landscape remained shrouded in darkness and damp from rain; a light drizzle persisted in the cold early morning hours, and other than the sound of a slight breeze and the heavy shuffling of the cadets, the area was absolutely silent. After a relatively short walk through the wet, thigh-high wheat, the group managed to find a space at the base of an oak under which 20 people could comfortably stand.
Col. Mike Stoneham (USMA Class of 1985), one of the five officers leading the joint Department of English and Philosophy/Department of History Advanced Individual Academic Development (AIAD) event, took a moment to explain “stand-to” protocol and issued guidance to the group: each person would move to and occupy a piece of the British trench-line facing the still existing German lines, not more than 200 meters distant; each person would quietly watch across the dew-covered wheat from the precipice of the trench line (the trenches have eroded too much to lean against the natural earth) and note what he or she heard, saw, and felt.
The group dispersed and carefully climbed the water-logged slopes of the trench to gain a position from which they could look across the field in the direction of where, 98 years ago, a German trench exercised the same protocol. Lt. Col. Jason Musteen, Lt. Col. David Siry (USMA Class of 1994), and I, the other AIAD leaders, dispersed ourselves along the former British trench line among the cadets.
Cadets Curtis Valencia (USMA ’16), Jim Trollan (USMA ’16) and Samuel Parker (USMA ’17) lead a group discussion about the battle at Delville Wood underneath “Le Dernier Arbre,” or “the last tree.” During the Somme offensive of 1916, South African units faced severe fighting and shelling at Delville Wood and sustained heavy casualties. The tree under which the group discussion took place was the only tree to survive the battle at this location.
Despite the cold of the morning and dampness in the air, I was perfectly warm from adrenaline and extremely anxious for something to happen; most of all, I felt incredibly vulnerable. As the sun began to rise and faintly illuminate No Man’s Land, my mind drifted, and I began to imagine the landscape that poet Isaac Rosenburg described in “Break of Day in the Trenches,” of “the sleeping green between,” of larks, of life. My thoughts continued to drift until it seemed that nothing in the world existed or had ever existed except that moment, that space, and the growing gulf of solitude and silence isolating me from the group.
Class of 2016 Cadet David Harris, majoring in History, remembers trying to “understand what [the soldiers] felt, but the thought of waiting for a gunshot to crack through the silence hitting a friend of mine on either side of me, gave …[him] a different view of the war.”
Nothing did happen in those seemingly infinite 40 minutes except the predictable rise of the sun, the joyful sounds of birdsong, and the eerie silence that still overwhelms the French countryside at dawn, but as we reunited to discuss the aforementioned poem by Rosenburg, a sense of relief and ease prompted by a happiness that accompanies companionship seemed to permeate the group. After deliberately re-reading Rosenberg’s poem, the cadets seemed to appreciate its reflective mood and seemed to understand, perhaps for the first time, the brutal reality of a soldier’s life in the trenches. The cadets seemed to have a real awareness of the speaker’s complex response to the sun’s appearance at dawn and the recognition of Death’s indiscriminate attitude towards humanity collapsed the gap that our troupe endeavored to bridge by exploring the literature that has informed our memories of a distant war and the soldiers who experienced it.
Our attempt to recreate the soldierly ritual of “stand to” revealed the undeniable connection between the physical and emotional sensations revealed in Great War literature and the universality of those sensations in the hallowed spaces of the trench. For Cadet Harris, “putting myself in the British soldiers shoes was the most beneficial experience of the trip [because] standing in that trench and pondering what those soldiers were thinking a hundred years ago helped me gain a better understanding of what those soldiers went through.”
By the time we had finished discussing the poem, there was just enough light to see the front line trench and the numerous shell-holes surrounding us. It was as though the Somme had decided to reveal her true complexion at just that moment to punctuate the conversation and demonstrate her own memory of the war.
Inspired by the centennial of the Great War, our interdisciplinary AIAD created a dialogue between history and literature in order to understand how the war is remembered and represented in modern culture. Therefore, we decided that the best way to understand the cultural and historical impact of the Great War was to visit those places along the Western Front that continue to impress and haunt historical and literary memory.
Though it’s impossible to experience the Great War first-hand, it is possible to reconsider “the war to end all wars” by walking the battlefields, exploring the operational landscapes, and breathing life into literature directly connected with the physical and psychological spaces of the war.
For three weeks in May and June, cadets and officers from both departments extensively researched and retraced the history and literature of the First World War and explored the war’s impact upon the individual soldier and Western Culture.
Cognizant that the Great War seems to have essentially altered the tenor of Western imagination, the trip served to inspire cadets to gain a real understanding of the war’s trajectory, to examine the way cultures recorded, narrated, and remembered war, and critically consider how this particular war fractured conventional modes of aesthetic expression. Cadets Zach Blankenbeker (USMA ’16), Peter Kenna (USMA ’16), and Sandy Martinez (USMA ’17) discuss the life and literary impact of poet Wilfred Owen. The AIAD stopped at the Forester’s House, the house in which Owen spent his last night before he was killed in action on 4 November 1918, one week before the Armistice, while leading his soldiers across the Sambre-Oise canal at Ors, France.