Local Historian Brings “Forgotten” WWI History to Life at Longmont Museum

A small crowd came to the Longmont Museum Thursday to hear a lecture on the human element of World War I that featured humor and antique weapons.

As part of its “Longmont & The Great War” exhibit, the museum hosted a lecture by a local historian on the lesser-known elements of World War I. The presentation, titled “Deadly Laboratories: Weapons and Tactics of the First World War,” sought to challenge stereotypical images of stalemates in trench warfare, and detailed behind-the-scenes innovations that were made in battle tactics and technologies.

Presenter Benjamin White-Patarino, a local author, history buff, and Park Ranger with Boulder County Parks and Open Space, has studied WWI history for decades, and shared photos, anecdotes, and even brought actual Word War 1-era rifles, mortar shells, and bayonets to what was a surprisingly entertaining evening.

Ann Macca, the museum’s curator of education, was pleased with the “really wonderful turnout,” saying there were “more people than we expected.”

White-Patarino was also surprised at the number of attendees, saying “[World War I] tends to get overshadowed by the second World War by quite a bit,” and admits that it isn’t often talked about.

Actually, despite World War I’s lower profile, White-Patarino has been talking about it for decades. He’s had an interest in the war since he was eight years old.

“Very quickly it became sort of a consuming passion. My friends were dressing up as Power Rangers for Halloween, and I was showing up at school with a French Infantry helmet,” he says.

His frustration with the fact that the Great War is often seemingly forgotten has spurred him to action recently, in a somewhat comical way. Last year, during the centennial of the war, he dressed up as a soldier and stood on a tree stump on the campus of his alma mater, Colorado State University, holding a sign saying “Ask me about World War I.”

“I was so appalled that there was nothing being talked about up there,” he says.

The audience at the lecture was comprised of a diverse group of young and old alike. Some in the audience were already educated on World War I while others were learning basic facts for the first time.

White-Patarino’s way of bringing the human side of one of humanity’s deadliest conflicts was apparent throughout the evening.

With rapt attention, audience members craned their necks from the rear of the room, hoping to get a better look as the speaker displayed French and American bolt-action rifles, a variety of bayonets, and hand-engraved “shell art” made from spent artillery shell casings.

At times, audible gasps could be heard as the speaker presented charts and data showing just how staggering the conflict’s death toll was: in one battle during the early part of the war, the French suffered over 60,000 casualties in just the first hour of fighting.

At other times, the crowd broke out in laughter at White-Patarino’s deadpan delivery of subtle jokes while sharing the facts. When a picture of one of the first tanks ever made was shown, White-Patarino described it simply as “a two-man tank” built by the carmaker, Renault. He then provided context on just how small the tank actually was: after joking about Hobbits to provide scale, he said: “some of you probably drove here in a car bigger than this tank.”

The challenge that soldiers faced in using the weapons used at the beginning of the war was apparent when the speaker held up a long rifle with an attached bayonet displaying what up until World War I was the standard-issue weaponry for most militaries. The comically-large weapon of over six feet, designed for long-range volley fire created an immediately-obvious problem in a four-foot-wide trench.

The lecture went overtime as the audience asked many questions about specific weapons, little-known facts about the conflict, clarification on uniforms, and even the little-known history of African-Americans that fought in the conflict.

Some of the most engaged and interesting questions came from a pair of boys sitting towards the back.

“How many soldiers got trench foot?” a 12-year-old asked. Stumped, the speaker couldn’t provide a statistic, but elaborated on the various ailments that soldiers suffered in the trenches, including trench foot, cholera, disease, rat-infestations, rampant infections, and more.

In closing his remarks and opening the floor to questions, White-Patarino eloquently summarized the end of World War I: “The war ended on the eleventh month, [on] the eleventh day, in the eleventh hour. So November 11th, 1918, at 11:00 in the morning.”

The Longmont Museum originally planned seating for approximately 50 attendees and had to bring in extra seats for the event two separate times. When asked how many tickets were sold, the museum’s cashier responded “About 74… plus a few people who I think snuck in.”

The Longmont Museum’s “Longmont & The Great War” exhibit will be running until May 13, 2018.