A bracelet made out of bullet casings and artillery shells with carvings of the likeness of Jesus are among the artifacts at a World War I exhibit at Cushing Memorial Library.
The "trench art" items highlight The Great War: Memories of Service and Sacrifice, A World War I Exhibit Featuring the Aggie Experience, which aims to recognize Texas A&M students' participation during the war, said Anton duPlessis, an archivist for Cushing. Most of the exhibit came from the library's archives, and some items were loaned to the library by Aggies and families of World War I veterans.
Other artifacts include a Patton Saber, letters from soldiers and a Texas A&M "Gold Book" pamphlet, which includes brief biographies of Aggies killed during the war. An enlarged image of a Gold Star Service Flag features 2,050 stars — 2,000 maroon stars for the Aggies who served, and 50 gold stars for the Aggies who died.
We spoke with duPlessis and Felicia Piscitelli, a rare-book and special-collections cataloger at Cushing, about the exhibit, which will conclude on Aug. 31. Here's more from them.
Q: What has the reaction been to the exhibit?
duPlessis: "Very popular. A great deal of interest … curiosity that really brings home the event of 100 years to make something tangible. Seeing a lot of these materials, and especially the photos and the correspondence, gives a very personal touch that people can relate to. One of the things that we have really tried to do throughout the cases is play up connections to A&M, because not only were there huge numbers of students at the time or graduates from the university that were present in the war, but A&M also served as a training facility for a lot of auxiliary people for radio operators and animal husbandry. So there are very many different ways the college contributed. It contributed officers, it contributed enlisted men and it also helped with radio operators and airplane mechanics. All sorts of phases of the conflict. A&M was very active in contributing to those activities."
Q: Did you have to reach out to families of soldiers for artifacts or was there a good willingness to donate them?
duPlessis: "In most cases, the material had already been given to us. Other cases, upon seeing what we had done in the exhibition, people have contributed materials after the fact. For instance, we have people who have loaned to us trench art. Those were pieces that were crafted from bullet casings and often times take the form of crosses or crucifixes. In other cases, a graduate of the university has loaned us a Patton Saber, along with the accoutrements related to tying down a horse. In other cases, a guy has given us shell casings for a German Mauser pistol, barbed wire, and an Adrian French helmet."
Q: What has the feedback been from veterans?
duPlessis: "I have heard from people who had been in the Corps and who had served, and they are very impressed with this. In fact, we've had some of the Corps members come and use some of the books that were in the display cases to do research projects. We've got these materials and we're highlighting them because of their narrative that they give for this overall idea of Aggies in service and remembrance, but they are also used in our education. So it's really kind of cool in that respect. … Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. We've had people that I know I have seen three or four different times through here."
Q: What kind of insight did you gain into what it was like during the war?
Piscitelli: "You read that it was terrible and all that kind of stuff, but working with this material and reading the research about it brings it home in a way. There were so many nations involved and nations you wouldn't think would be involved, and that is because of the British Commonwealth and Great Britain joining the war. It was not only Great Britain per se, but also Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Egypt — all those countries. So that's an aspect that might easily be overlooked."
duPlessis: "Despite the brutality [of the war], we saw a lot of things in letters. A lot of these guys very much took to creative outlets to cope. We have a lot of sketching. There's a great deal of song that was employed. In other cases, there's this idea of trench art. You are picking up these bullet casings and you start making stuff out of it. We have a lot of correspondence, a lot of things about sport, football players. In one case, we've got this letter where a guy says, 'We formed our own competitive league within our group, and the captain of our team played for A&M.'"
Q: What do you hope viewers take away from the exhibit?
duPlessis: "I think that it's a combination of recognition of the sacrifice and the transformative nature of World War I. It basically left the mobilization that was needed to support this war effort and transformed the countries that were involved. Huge bureaucracies developed because they needed to outfit the men, feed the men, pay the men, etc. A lot of the arms races continued on, bigger and larger. The new technology that developed out of the warfare, like the armor, the air power. Within a few months of the ending of the war, the Americans are successfully launching aircrafts from aircraft carriers. That had never happened before. Obviously you could not go back to the status quo that existed previously. So I think that's one of the things that very much in a way mark our modern period. There were also a lot of people who were conscientious objectors who would not bear arms, but felt a duty to serve. So they put themselves in the line of combat by being ambulance drivers or medics. So even if they felt they could not fight, they felt the need to render service on the behalf of others, which is very much keeping an Aggie idea of service and sacrifice."