Thomas Mulholland crouched at the bottom of the trench, head down, legs bent and ready to spring.
His heart, he admits, was racing.
When the whistle blew for the third time, Mulholland, 20, burst up and over the top of the trench, helping the person next to him as he went. Now out in the open, the Cheshire native raced across open field and to the woods, where he rejoined his group.
“We were all kind of laughing. It was kind of like having been on a roller coaster ride,” admitted Mulholland, “and then someone mentioned that (the group) would just have been mowed down by machine gun fire.”
“That grounded us,” he continued. “It brought us back to reality.”
Mulholland was in no danger on this particular morning, the first he would spend in France helping to restore trenches from World War I back to their original condition, but the lesson was well learned. One hundred years prior, there had been no laughing, no feeling of joyous exhilaration. There had only been panic, fear, and for many, death.
For three weeks this past summer, beginning on July 7, a group of 15 high school-aged students from Connecticut worked on WWI trenches in the French town of Seicheprey, Lorraine, helping the community there preserve a part of its history that, for many in the region, never seems too far removed from the present. The students, led by Cheshire’s Christine Pittsley, who was the project manager for the recent Connecticut State Library’s extensive WWI project, worked for days on the trenches, digging them out, rebuilding the walls, and even helping to refurbish an WWI-era shelter.
This was the first program of its kind in the United States, and Pittsley admits that getting everything situated for the trip was a massive undertaking.
No state dollars were used, so costs were covered by donations and the different fundraising activities organized by the individual students.
“There was a ton of work to do on this end,” said Pittsley, “and sometimes I would think, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing?’”
Mulholland, who has known Pittsley since childhood and has been an active member of the Cheshire Historical Society for years - the popular Spirits Alive! Cemetery tour held annually in October was largely his brainchild - was intrigued by the prospect of attending the trip, in part because it would afford him an opportunity to become better acquainted with a part of history he previously had studied very sparingly.
“I love history, but I honestly haven’t had much interest in military history in the past,” Mulholland explained. “But I thought, how many 20-year-olds have the chance to participate in something like this and do something so meaningful for the community?”
Mulholland, like other students who attended, was asked to research a WWI soldier from his town, so as to become more familiar with a someone who had actually served in the war.
“That way, when the students were standing in the trenches, they would have an idea of who had stood there before them,” explained Pittsley.
“To watch as the kids slowly understood that … it really made me understand why some people want to be teachers,” she continued. “It was mind blowing.”
While the experience with the trenches allowed the group a chance to actually “touch” the history of WWI, it was a special ceremony the students witnessed one day that truly made an impression. During the trip, a small town in France, with a population of approximately 47 residents, held a small ceremony in honor of four U.S. aviators who were killed in the area during the war. It was an event more than 100 years in the making.
“They weren’t creating this memorial because we were there,” Mulholland explained. “They were creating it to honor the men who died, and we got to experience that.”
The community of Beaumont, Lorraine, aided in the cost of the trip, covering accommodations, transportation, meals, and even activities, which included a day trip to an amusement park. Two of the three weeks were spent working on the trenches, while the other week was spent touring parts of France, including Paris and Verdun.
For Pittsley, the impetus of organizing the trip was to expose a wide range of students to WWI history, but the Cheshire resident came to appreciate that the experience had many other impacts on students.
“Seeing one of the students come out of her shell … that was extremely special,” said Pittsley. “She was very shy at first and struggled early to fit in. Then, to see her one morning at breakfast ask to join a group (of students), that was so incredible.”
“It was truly a life-changing experience for all of us,” she continued. “Aside from the birth of my child, this was the most rewarding experience of my life.”
Mulholland also remarked on the growth of the students who attended, pointing out that many who attended weren’t necessarily history buffs before the trip.
“To see the kids become friends, to see them become so close and form a greater appreciation for history at the same time, that’s what I’ll always remember,” he said.