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WWI documentary reveals lasting history in Europe

Date: 6/14/2010

June 14, 2010.

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

While living in a small Belgium village, retired University of Massachusetts Professor Ed Klekowski and his wife Libby didn't realize the history that surrounded them.

They soon did as the town was near the legendary Western Front, the battle line between the Allies and Germany in Belgium and France during World War I (WWI).

Once, however, the husband and wife realized the artifacts of that conflict -- "the war to end all wars" as it was described at the time -- literally abound in the nearby woods and fields, they became intrigued.

For the Klekowskis that meant producing a documentary. Their new film, "Yanks Fight the Kaiser: A National Guard Division in WWI," will be broadcast by WGBY on June 30 at 8 p.m.

Examining history on film is nothing new to the couple as they produced "Under Quabbin," "The Great Flood of 1936" and "Dynamite, Whiskey & Wood: Connecticut River Log Drives 1870-1915" for the local PBS station.

Their new film is the second part of a trilogy about WWI with their first film being "Model T's to War: American Ambulances on the Western Front."

Ed Klekowski said, "Our interest in WWI began in 2004 while living in Leuven (Louvain), Belgium. We were waiting to go into the university library, when a Belgian student asked if we were Americans. She then gave us a lecture on how the old university library had been burned by the German Army in 1914, and how American students from grammar schools, high schools and colleges had donated money to rebuild the library in the 1920's. And how every July 4th the American flag is flown from the library bell tower as a thank you.

"Well, we were hooked; we had to learn more, the war to end all wars became a passion," he continued. "We soon were visiting Western Front battlefields every weekend.

"And one weekend we visited Apremont and saw the fountain that Holyoke had put up honoring its Yankee Division soldiers; you could say it spoke to us," he added. "We walked around the village and into the woods behind -- and there were the trenches! They seemed haunted, artifacts were everywhere. We had to tell this story."

Traveling to France and visiting the village rebuilt by Belle Skinner of Holyoke, Klekowski recalled thinking, "What's Holyoke doing in the middle of France?"

As the couple's film documents, the Yankee Division, made of National Guard troops initially from Massachusetts and Connecticut, was the first American unit to arrive in France to assist the Allies in the war. Soliders from Western Massachusetts were part of that unit.

The troops managed to skip their combat training in the United States and had to be trained and equipped by the French. By April 1918, though, because of their bravery and success in attacking the German trenches, the French awarded the Croix de Guerre to the division, becoming the first American military unit to be decorated by a foreign government.

The film uses much archival movie footage and still photographs and Klekowski explained a Signal Corps unit documented the division's activities.

Klekowski said finding and assembling that footage represented a year's work in itself. Local historical institutions such as the Wistariahurst Museum also supplied photos and information.

"Everyone was forthcoming with materials," Klekowski said. "We could have made a two-hour show."

The reading of memoirs represented the personal side of the war and Klekowski noted the early 20th century was a time when many people kept diaries and wrote detailed letters.

Step inside the woods of the Western Front of France and Belgium and Klekowski said you'd find the evidence of war where the troops left it. He said the actual front was only two to three miles wide and about 400 miles long. The mark of years of assaults and defensive actions taking place in the same basic strip of land can still be seen today.

In the film, Klekowski tours WWI bunkers that are still in place and shows how shell casings and unexploded shells have lain undisturbed the better part of a century after the conflict.

"The woods look like New England," he said. "Except here they were shaped by glaciers and there by artillery."

In the woods, one can find stumps of trees with shrapnel embedded in them.

He also said the woods are cluttered with a multitude of bottles. The French troops drank wine, while the Germans drank beer and schnapps. He said that one contemporary account described "No Man's Land" -- the area between the lines of opposing troops "looking like a local garbage dump."