Having grown up at the site of historic trenches of war, Juliette Buxton has a particular appreciation for Veterans Day. So much, in fact, that she celebrates the holiday twice.
Buxton, a French teacher at Boise High School, grew up in the Somme region of France before moving to the United States in 1992. France was one of the key battlegrounds for both World War I and World War II. She distinctly remembers drawing pictures of poppies, which became a symbol for the war because they grew unexpectedly on cemetery soil, on cards to send to veterans of the first war.
In France, there are two Veterans Days: One on May 8 to commemorate the end of WWII in France, and the one on Nov. 11 to mark the end of WWI.
This Veterans Day marked the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. Remembering the past is important to Buxton; she wants it to be important to students, too. She knows it is difficult, however, as family members involved in World War I have all died by now, and the battles from the conflict took place thousands of miles away.
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So Buxton took matters into her own hands.
With help from several departments at Boise High, Buxton set up a World War I museum for students and parents to walk through on Monday. Letters and photos from families, lists of Idahoans who died in the war and biographies of soldiers, from here and from abroad, will be included.
“To me, it’s really important not to forget any of those battles. But it means a lot because it happened on our territory (in France). We’re still finding ourselves reminded regularly of what it meant ... those billions of shells that were dropped on the country,” Buxton said. “As a French person, it’s also very important for me to thank all those soldiers who came from other places in the world to help us.”
Buxton lost a pair of great uncles in World War I; her grandfather was a prisoner of war in World War II. For some families, connections to war are simple. For others, the links are not so easy to find, particularly as time continues to pass.
That’s where a museum in Brissy, France, came into play. Buxton had visited the museum previously and, upon getting the OK to start the museum project, Buxton made contact.
Brissy is a town of approximately 600 people; 27 soldiers from the town died during World War I, Buxton said. The museum sent Buxton the biographies of 25 of the soldiers. Included were the names and ages of the soldiers, copies of their handwritten draft cards and biographical information, including specifics on the day they died. Most of the soldiers were between 20 and 40 years old.
The man’s name was Camille Gaisne
Buxton takes one of the cards, written in French, in her hand. She reads it aloud.
The man’s name was Camille Gaisne; he was born in 1894. He had brown hair and blue eyes and worked in agriculture. He was 22 when he died in February 1916 from enemy fire.
“It was 7 a.m., and it was very cold,” Buxton read from the bottom of the page. “Then, it was a rain of shells.”
These biographies affected Buxton’s students, she said. To lose nearly 5 percent of an entire town like Brissy hit home.
“We talked about the families waiting (for news) … they kind of picture themselves being the families,” she said.
The museum project is interdisciplinary, Buxton said. The science department, for example, is looking at the technology involved in the war. The biology department is teaching students about the Spanish Flu, which killed between 20 and 50 million people in 1918, according to History.com, while the English department is looking at poems and propaganda. The school’s art department is drawing poppies.
In addition to reading biographies of soldiers overseas, local families who had family involved in the war offered up letters and pictures of their loved ones to the museum. That includes Buxton, who included a picture of her great uncles and a description of them.
Mark Breske, spokesman for the Idaho State Historical Society, told the Statesman in an email that he had never seen an effort quite this ambitious from a school.
“The all-out effort to provide hands-on history is pretty unique,” Breske said. “The way it’s set up will allow students a better opportunity to retain the greater lessons.”
The man’s name was William Lloyd Crystal
One entry submitted is of a Rigby man named William Lloyd Crystal. His biography is written in traditional typewriter font. With it is a letter written to Crystal’s wife dated Aug. 7, 1919. It is a letter informing her that her husband had died.
“We sympathize with you in the loss of this soldier, and assure you of our desire to be of any possible service to you,” the letter reads.
Another piece gave information about Margaret Cobb Ailshie, a former publisher of the Statesman who “traveled abroad to serve in France in World War I as a member of the Red Cross.” The Boise High library provided old issues of the school newspaper, “The Courier,” one which included a story about Robert Nourse, a former student who enlisted in the war.
Unless commemorated, history such as World War I can be forgotten, according to Breske. It’s important it never reaches that point.
“Commemorations are reminders of experiences, sometimes beyond any recent memory. No one is alive who fought or remembers first-hand the global ramifications of World War I. It’s not a celebration, but a somber reminder of a time that shaped the United States’ relationship with the world,” Breske said. “There was a ‘nationalist’ sentiment during this time. Many had no interest in getting involved in a ‘global’ conflict. Of course those sentiments and rhetoric are relevant today. So whether you believe in them or not there are so many lessons to take away from the United States’ involvement in this conflict.”
If nothing else, Buxton wants people to know that, for some families, World War I never really ends. It is a part of life; its integral players should be remembered for their tremendous sacrifices.
“There’s a legacy, whether you want it or not … some traumatic events are passed down from generation to generation, even if they are not spoken of,” Buxton said. “I have so many stories from my own family.”