WWI Exhibit In The Trenches

Feb 16, 2016

An Iowa City designer, who specializes in museum exhibits, is putting the final touches on his latest creation: a realistic portrayal of trench warfare during World War One. It's at the Gold Star Museum in Johnston.

There are no more living veterans of World War One, but just in time for the 99th anniversary of America's involvement, Iowans will soon be able to experience what combat was like in the safety of a museum. Will Thomson teaches exhibit design at the University of Iowa.

"Museums have had to compete in the last couple dozen years with you know theater, theme parks, all kinds of entertainment."

Designer Will Thomson at the entrance of a "step trench" being incorporated in a new WW1 exhibit.
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

Thomson is recreating a shelled French village in a $250,000 exhibit at Camp Dodge, which itself is a World War One relic. It served as a regional training center for thousands of troops heading off to Europe.

"Museums don't usually have the budgets to afford them to do really high tech and expensive kinds of displays that involve light and sound and it's going to be a completely unique experience."

The feature attraction descends into the horrors of trench warfare, complete with 8-tracks of sound and sub woofers that will shake the ground in a simulated night scene, according to Thomson.

"It's dark in here and it's lit by lanterns and you hear the footsteps of men moving up and down the trench, even the dirt from an explosion falling into the trench. Where you're standing will literally vibrate with the concussion of an artillery shell impacting."

Just like the infantrymen who fought here, visitors can look through periscopes and see actual film of World War One combat. Mike Vogt is curator of the Gold Star Museum.

"The majority of the casualties occurred on the front line trenches, artillery was the big killer."

Post card photo showing soldiers training at Camp Dodge.
Credit Iowa Gold Star Military Museum

According to Vogt, more than 3,500 Iowans died in World War One.

"When the armies of Europe went to war in August of 1914, industry and scientific discovery from the prior three decades went along with them yielding murderous weapons like the machine gun, high explosive artillery, rapid fire artillery, magazine rifles and the most dreadful weapon of all was poison gas."

The phrase "life in the trenches" originated during World War One, as did "trench foot," the dreaded fungal disease caused by nonstop exposure to mud and water. Designer Will Thomson had forefathers who were in the trenches.

"Doing a museum exhibit is not entirely entertainment, you know it's here to teach people about the way circumstances really were. If I could get smells in here I would; blood and sweat, and mud and gun powder, and tear gas and mustard gas and all that, but that might make it a little intolerable for visitors."

It still runs. One of two known Liberty trucks in operating condition.
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

Among the other WW1 artifacts is a 1918 Liberty truck, which could reach a top speed of 12 miles per hour. It's believed to be one of only two that are still in operating condition.  

The exhibition commemorating America's role in the "great war" is set to open in early April.