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New exhibit tells the story of alumni who fought in World War I

March 31, 2017

Members of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute Class of 1919
In 1920, members of the Overseas Club — Virginia Polytechnic Institute students who fought in Europe during World War One — gathered around The Rock, a stone memorial the Class of 1919 erected in memory of VPI students and alumni lost during the war. (Scrapbook of Robert Moore, courtesy of Virginia Tech Special Collections)

All was quiet on the Western Front — until about one o’clock in the morning of Sept. 12, 1918, when, infantryman Clifford Hubbard later wrote, an artillery barrage nearly drowned out the sound of his voice.

It was on the World War I battlefield of Saint-Mihiel in France that Hubbard, a member of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute’s Class of 1913, saw the sky lit up with shells. After the soldiers in his unit rose out of their trenches at dawn, they did not stop fighting for three days.

Hubbard’s account will be on display at Virginia Tech’s Newman Library in “Stories from the Great War: VPI Men in the Service of Their Country, 1917–1918.” The new exhibit will capture the stories of nine alumni who fought on Western Front battlefields during the final months of World War One.

In the early days of the battle, Hubbard noted that his unit was so successful that German soldiers had only two ideas: to run, and “if they could not run fast enough, to surrender.”

Several weeks later, Hubbard and his unit — the 355th Infantry of the U.S. Army — fought in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, where he was shot in the chest. While he was recovering, Hubbard learned that his younger brother had died in combat the same day.  

“The army is all right,” Hubbard later wrote, “but I think that I like farming a good deal better.”

Alumnus Daniel Newcomb, of Monterey, Virginia, who graduated with a history degree in 2013, helped research and produce the exhibit.

“As a Virginia Tech student, I often walk by The Rock, the stone memorial for VPI men who died in combat,” he said. “After seeing my Corps of Cadets friends salute or place their hands over their hearts as they passed The Rock, I too began to place my hand over my heart. But I realized I knew almost nothing about those soldiers who died in France or the larger story of Virginia Tech men who served in World War I.”

Between April 1917 and November 1918, as many as a thousand students and alumni from Virginia Polytechnic Institute served their country. They were among the first soldiers to arrive in France during the spring of 1918, almost a year after the United States declared war on Germany.

“Unfortunately, when many of these men returned from France, they found that few people could relate to their wartime experiences,” said Newcomb, now a master’s student dually enrolled in the Department of History and the School of Education, both in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “Most of the veterans decided to keep their experiences to themselves. But, as ‘Stories from the Great War’ reveals, their stories haven’t been lost. Instead, the details of their experiences are waiting to be found in letters, questionnaires, and newspapers. Now, a hundred years after the war, it’s up to us to tell their stories.”

“Stories from the Great War” is supported by the Department of History in collaboration with University Libraries.

“This student research project demonstrates the importance of thinking creatively and critically about problems in history,” said E. Thomas Ewing, a Virginia Tech history professor who has helped coordinate a broader VPI in World War One initiative. “By combining personal narratives with contextual knowledge and geographic visualizations of the frontlines, these students are able to plumb the unique dimensions of the First World War. At the same time, they’re exploring questions that continue to matter to Virginia Tech and its students.”

The exhibit will be held April 4 through May 15 on the second floor of Newman Library. An opening reception will take place at the exhibit site on April 4 at 4 p.m.

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