WWI items found
JOHNSTON – Archaeologists hired to dig at World War I training trenches on the Iowa National Guard Base at Camp Dodge have uncovered several artifacts dating to when the United States entered the war: rifle shell casings, a machine gun suppressor from the era and non-exploding grenades.
Excavation began last week in Johnston and continued Wednesday with the team working to learn more about the trench systems, which were used for training U.S. soldiers before they were shipped out to Europe.
Hundreds of thousands of soldiers trained at 16 military bases around the U.S. before being sent to man the trenches of Europe. Some of those bases built extensive trench systems in 1917 so the soldiers could train in a realistic environment.
One of the bases was Camp Dodge, where soldiers assigned to infantry, signal and ordnance units would have prepared for combat, said Mike Vogt, curator of the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum at Camp Dodge.
Widespread use of weapons such as high-explosive ammunition and rapid-fire artillery during the war led to battles in which soldiers hunkered down in complex trench systems along the Western Front, an area that stretched more than 400 miles between Switzerland and the North Sea on the northern coast of France and Belgium.
“When American soldiers became involved in the war 2 years after the Europeans engaged in combat they realized this was the nature of warfare,” Vogt said.
As a result, the U.S. military trained soldiers to fight in trenches. Historic photos at the camp show soldiers standing in trenches, their heads barely reaching ground level, indicating they were about 6 feet deep. The trenches that remain have over time filled in to a depth of about 3 feet.
Only a few remnants of these training grounds remain on the 4,400-acre Camp Dodge but intense interest has developed as the 100th anniversary of U.S. involvement in the war approaches.
Training trenches also have been found at Camp Upton in New York and Camp Shelby in Mississippi.
At the Iowa site, trenches were used for training 120,000 soldiers from across the U.S. However, it was unclear until recently whether they those trenches had survived.
The Guard base, originally established in 1909, was expanded and transformed into a training facility by the federal government in 1917. After the war, significant portions of land the government had acquired from farmers was sold and much of it was returned to farming by the 1920s.
“Most of the remnants of World War I were lost at that time,” said Mary Jones, environmental specialist with the Iowa National Guard. The exact location of the training trenches was forgotten.
In a recent review of an aerial image created by a special type of laser photography that allows the terrain of land to be seen through trees, National Guard geographical information systems specialist Jamie Conley noticed unusual ground indentations that appeared unnatural. Upon further inspection, it was concluded they were the World War I training trenches.
The trenches cut through the floor of a dense forested area of hackberry, elm and black locust trees in a 5-acre area north of the current Camp Dodge main base buildings.
Jones said the area may have been used again in the 1920s for training, sparing it from being filled in or otherwise significantly altered. The timber has been off-limits for much of the last 40 years as part of the safety area behind the base’s shooting ranges.
It’s in a flood plain and was under several feet of water in 1993.
The National Guard Bureau provided $10,000 to hire the archaeologists. Additional money will be sought to further explore the area and to preserve it.
“It’s about how we trained, how we lived, how we fought. This is a piece of priceless history that can’t be replaced if it would ever go away,” said Col. Greg Hapgood, the Iowa National Guard spokesman. “It can be preserved and guarded for future generations to understand the history of what our nation went through in World War I.”