Presentation sheds light on human side of WWI during centennial
April 6th, 2017 marks the centennial of America’s involvement in World War I.
After years of neutrality, the United State decided to get involved with the war 100 years ago, marking the beginning of the largest, most impactful event in our country’s history.
Michael Brown, a local historian, will commemorate the centennial with a lecture and demonstration on WWI at the Essex Library on Monday, April 3. He will present artifacts and photographs from his extensive collection, which also includes authentic uniforms and equipment that the audience can try on.
“It is the watershed of that century, nothing changed the world more than World War I, every aspect of society has changed one way or
another as a result of the war,” said Brown. “People don’t realize how much of what we do or don’t do now is a result of something that happened 100 years ago.”
The history books focus on the key players and important dates, he said, but they leave out the experiences of the everyday people that show the full story and the full impacts of the war. His varied collection and presentation include journals and letters written by soldiers while they were in the trenches fighting for their lives. His lecture will touch on what they ate, what they wore, their living quarters, and other historical elements, like how the war helped promote technological advancements, like the development of the gas mask, and how the wives and children that were left at home dealt with the effects at home. From the comfort of the library, he hopes to entrench his audience into the trenches, transporting them to 1917. The information isn’t coming from the general, it’s coming from the person on the front line.
“I’m more concerned with the human element. If I can awaken an interest in any aspect of that then people can explore on their own. For me, it’s these personal items that have the most impact. It’s the photos and letters, some of the letters just break your heart.”
Brown remembers a disfigured neighbor who had fought in the war. He, along with other children, would run away from the man until his father explained that the neighbor’s face was scarred from exposure to mustard gas. His pas- sion for WW1 was awakened in 1997 when he helped his nephew with a school project on the war. Brown became fascinated with letters and diaries and other personal accounts and how they create a wider, more human and more real picture of the Great War.
“When you look at any history you tend to get a record of the kings and the queens and the generals and they’re only a small part of the story,” he explained. “History is the story of the people, the multitudes that fight the wars, that make the ships, that work in the homes. These are the people that without whom no king or general is worth anything. They kind of get lost in history. I think people need to understand that it’s what happened to the little guy that’s important.”
Brown himself is a man of many talents. He was a teacher in the Baltimore City Schools, worked as a Probation Officer, and a photographer. Now he divides his time between making handcrafted wooden toys, playing Santa Claus, substitute teaching at Hereford High School, giving presentations on the Great War and on toy-making, and spreading his historical knowledge to the next generation.
“I realize I’m not getting any younger and I want to share what I picked up and what I know and maybe arouse the interest of people so they can keep up the research and pass it on to others.”
Brown’s demonstration will run from 4-5:30 p.m. All ages are welcome. The Essex Branch Library is located at 1110 Eastern Blvd.