Jack Ryon’s great-great-grandfather earned a silver star taking out a German machine gun nest during World War I. The 11-year-old had known about machine guns and some other things about the war that was to have ended all wars.
Yet he had no idea about how narrow, dark, and scary were the trenches in which his great-great-grandfather had served until he entered one, right here in New Haven.
That facsimile trench, complete with barbed wire and the peals of exploding artillery shells and Sopwith Camel motors above, is the centerpiece of the interactive and sobering new exhibit “World War I: Beyond The Front Lines,” which recently opened at the museum and runs through the end of 2018.
The show uses more than 300 photographs, posters, letters, artworks, pamphlets, books, paper ephemera, and artifacts — facsimiles of some of which you can put on yourself, like helmets and uniforms, to mark the centennial of the war.
The show also provides a context to explore the history of the Knights of Columbus members who served as soldiers and as “secretaries.”
The “secretaries,” also known as Caseys (after “K of C”) were about 3,000 strong both at home and overseas. They were beyond-military-age men, with the help of a handful of women, who opened up “huts,” or the recreation halls and warehouses to supply the men in camps in the States as well as overseas.
They provided the soldiers many of the amenities that a nascent U.S. military bureaucracy was unable to.
Those items, which the military relied on the K of C to provide, included books, stationary, candies, cigarettes, hot baths, dances, baseball and other organized games, and, of course, religious services.
Anybody in the military could partake of the services and amenities offered; you didn’t have to be Catholic or white, said Vivian Lea Solek, Knights of Columbus archivist.
A large blow-up of camp life in Kentucky before soldiers shipped overseas shows African-Americans in K of C baseball uniforms. Because the law of the land then still called for segregated facilities, there was one K of C hut for blacks and another for whites.
The exhibition takes you into the heart of one of those huts in facsimile. But before you get there, in the two earlier galleries — all of which take up the entire first floor exhibition space of the museum — you learn the bloody history of the conflict through films, artifacts, and by trying on, if you wish, a doughboy’s helmet and uniform.
The term “doughboy” seems to have derived not from the World War I era itself. According to curator and registrar Bethany Sheffer’s labels, the term’s origin, steeped in the mists of the wars of previous decades, may have to do with the dust that kicked up in the long marches of American troops during the Mexican war, covering the soldiers as thoroughly as flour dusted the bodies of bakers.
Sheffer’s own great grandfather, Sheridan Phillip Sheffer, served in the Navy during World War I. One of the special treats of the exhibition for her was to be able to lend her grandfather’s binoculars to the display.
Never mind that she used the glasses herself, which were kept in her parents’ house, when she wanted to get a closer look at the turkeys in her backyard.
For the next year and a half, the shiny brass binoculars are on a shelf in the gallery created to give something of the experience of stepping into a training camp. Beside the binocs is a photograph of Sheffer’s grandfather actually using the glasses to peer out from the beside the gun turret on the deck of the U.S.S. Noma.
A year’s worth of programs include presentations, beginning this month, on the evolution of trench warfare and the World War I poets.