VC exhibits local Great War tales

“The French Tank,” donated in appreciation of Vassar’s services during WWI by the French government, contained a leftover detonating cap. Despite this, the tank remained an integral part of social life on campus for two decades. Courtesy of Vassar College Encyclopedia.

On Saturday, Oct. 13, Vassar College and the Dutchess County Historical Association opened “Over Here/ Over There,” an exhibit commemorating the 100th anniversary of the armistice of 1918, which ended fighting between the Allies and Germany (Vassar Info, “The Dutchess County Historical Association and Vassar College are partnering to present the exhibit, ‘Over Here/Over There,’” 10.09.2018). The event, which is on display in the Faculty Commons in Main until Oct. 31, was part of the Dutchess County Historical Association’s “2018: Year of the Veteran” programming. According to the program description on its website, “While recognizing all veterans of all wars, [the exhibit puts] a special focus on the brief moment at the end of the so-called ‘Great War’ when many felt they’d seen the closure of a war so large, so horrific, it was the war to end all wars” (Dutchess County Historical Society, “DCHS 2018: Year of the Veteran Regional Chamber of Commerce,” 11.15.2017).

The exhibit, as a component of this broader programming, reviews how various stages throughout the war impacted the lives of Vassar students and faculty and Dutchess County residents, while focusing on the roles and individual stories of underrepresented groups— such as people of color and women—in the war and on the home front. Vassar College Historian Colton Johnson, who collaborated with Dutchess County Historical Society (DCHS) board member Melodye Moore and DCHS Executive Director Bill Jeffway on the exhibit, spoke to his goal of sharing untold stories: “[The exhibit] is not just instructive, because there’s no syllabus or set regimen, as much as it is trying to give the sense of what the atmosphere must’ve been like if you were a reviewer, or a trustee, or if you were a freshman, or if you were a political science professor, or if you were an alumna. This was the kind of atmosphere that they were working in.” By sharing Vassar students’ and Dutchess County residents’ individual stories and war contributions, the exhibit transports attendees back to this bleak wartime era.

Johnson also elaborated on how the exhibit dedicates space to both the home front and the battlefield, as Vassar student, faculty and alumnae/i involvement in the war increased over time. He explained, “The nursing camp was an extraordinary success. Once we had Vassar work abroad, I’ve taken the focus off the campus and focused on what the two major units that the college and the alumna formed and supported: the Relief Unit that worked with the Red Cross and Field Hospitals as nurses aids and the Canteen Unit, which helped support the feeding and social pulling-together of the troops, and I was fortunate enough to find commentaries on the front and what it was like and what they were doing.”

“Over Here/Over There,” an exhibit on view in the Faculty Commons, makes stories of Vassar community members’ experiences throughout World War I accessible to present-day students. Charlotte Varcoe-Wolfson/The Miscellany News.

Johnson received much of his information regarding popular opinion at the College from online Miscellany News archives and discussed how widespread overseas contact increased the campus’ sense of involvement in the war: “If you were a student of those days, or a faculty member, when you were reading the Quarterly or the Miscellany, you were being brought directly and personally in contact with some of the people who were over there, helping people who had lost their limbs or those who were desperately hungry…” Johnson explained that, by including these personal, detailed accounts, he hoped to expose the exhibit’s attendants to the texture of life at that time.

He further touched upon how this correspondence with those at the front facilitated action of those at the College: “The faculty, the administrators and the students were all reacting and acting as if [they] were at world war. The Vassar community was underpinned and strengthened by the way the students and the administration and the faculty and the alumni communicated and wished each other well, and then mourned the loss of some of the people that they’d come to know from their correspondences … The way they wrote back about what they were doing must’ve impressed upon the freshmen and sophomores and juniors of those years what the war was like in ways that, probably, The New York Times or the Sun didn’t.”

Just as access to information on the warfront during the WWI era facilitated community involvement, the exhibit’s personalized accounts of the war similarly foster a connection between the present and the past. “Over Here/Over There” is a collection of panels with stories of Vassar community members’ experiences throughout the war, printed alongside photographs of these individuals. Johnson discussed the choice to use stories and photographs as the exhibit’s primary medium: “I think it’s important to know that more than 200 Vassar alumni were abroad during the war doing one or another kind of work, but I didn’t [focus on] the structural facts of things [as much as I was] trying to share … the lives of those who were deeply touched by what they found themselves doing during the war.”

One of the panels contained The Miscellany News’ description of the campus reaction to the armistice: “It was 3:30 A.M. Monday by a very cold watch and pitch dark. The confusion belied the shouts of ‘Peace! Peace!’ First came a helter skelter race through the corridors of all the halls. Then a crowd assembled under the porte-cochere of Main and sang jubilantly, in spite of chattering teeth…The sunrise of November 11 will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it from the top of Sunset [Lake]…” (“A Parting Shot,” The Miscellany News, 11.14.1918, retrieved from Panel 13).

Further commemorating the intermittent celebration of peace following the armistice, Johnson concluded the Vassar portion of the exhibit on a humorous note. The 15th panel contains a picture of the “French Tank,” which the French Third Republic donated to the College in appreciation for its services during and immediately after the Great War (“The French Tank,” Vassar College Encyclopedia). The photo’s caption reads, “No one was harmed in 1934 when a workman dismantling the rusting tank accidentally discharged a leftover detonating cap” (“Over Here/Over There,” Panel 15). Despite this glitch, the tank remained behind Josselyn House as a staple of student life on campus for two decades.

These smaller stories within the greater narrative of WWI are what allow “Over Here/Over There” to recreate the feeling of the time, something lost when studying the war purely through facts. Just one of many tales memorialized in the exhibit, the French government’s appreciation of Vassar’s wartime contributions exemplifies the extent of Vassar’s influence during this era. The sum of all the narratives the exhibit contains reflects the fact that the Vassar community’s efforts both at home and abroad had a significant impact that shifted the course of history.


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