| Debbie Gardner
SPRINGFIELD – Why do veterans sell poppies around Veteran’s Day? And why, exactly, do we have a day in November to remember our nation’s veterans?
These are just a few of the questions the Small Planet Dancers hope to answer when they present “Remembering the ‘War to End All Wars’” – a commemoration of the Centennial of the end of World War I – at 2 p.m. on Nov. 11 in the museum hall of the Springfield Armory National Historic Site, One Armory Square.
The free, 90-minute performance – which weaves together turn-of-the 20th Century songs, dances, sing-alongs, reenactment vignettes and dramatic readings – is designed to help people make a connection with that era in American history in the hopes they will better understand what Small Planet Founder and Artistic Director Josephine Sarnelli calls an oftentimes “forgotten war.”
“People forget the linkage in history to World War II,” Sarnelli said. “A lot of the people who were in World War I were also in World War II.”
World War I came to an end on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, when Germany surrendered to the Allied Troops, which included the U.S. In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the day should be recognized with “solemn pride” and “gratitude for the victory.” In 1926, Congress declared Armistice Day should be commemorated with prayers and thanksgiving – and the date became the forerunner of our modern Veteran’s Day.
Sarnelli said Small Planet is excited that their WWI Centennial performance is taking place on Nov. 11, the actual date of the armistice.
“We knew that weekend was important [and] we are very happy that the Armory actually wanted to do it on that day,” Sarnelli said.
Susan Ashman, park ranger and historic weapons supervisor for the Springfield Armory, said the timing of the performance also coincides with the last day of the second of the Armory’s Centennial Year World War I exhibits. That exhibit – “Spoils of War – Relics from the Front” – presents items that were culled from the front lines of battle, primarily in France.
She said combining the Small Planet presentation with the final day of the Relics exhibit was a “nice way” to commemorate the centennial of the Armistice.
Sarnelli said, “War to End all War” attendees should expect to have a good time while learning about the history of World War I. “What I’ve learned is that you can’t go out there and have everything somber,” she said. “I try to pick things that are lighthearted so people can understand the era – Vaudeville was popular, Burlesque was popular, we sprinkle those things in and set the stage and link the time to the war.
“We print out song sheets that let people sing along – people don’t realize [songs like ‘God bless America’] are from World War I,” she added.
But the presentation does have its somber moments, such as the vignettes of men and women leaving their families to go to war – “we show that they don’t come back” – and the reading of the historic poem “In Flanders Fields.”
That poem, Sarnelli said, “links back to World War I [because] it talks about the poppies [in the fields in France and Belgium where so many died and that’s why on Veteran’s Day we buy poppies.” They have, according to references to the poem, become both a symbol of sacrifice, and rebirth.
“When I was a little girl, I remember my parents buying poppies [around Veteran’s Day], but I didn’t make a connection to it,” she admitted.
In addition to the performances and reenactment, Sarnelli said she would pause to read the names of the 159 men – and one woman – from Springfield who lost their lives during World War I. During her research into the lives lost from the city – she does such an investigation for every community where Small Planet performs the World War I remembrance – she discovered there is a marker and a grove of 160 trees in Forest Park commemorating the sacrifice.
With the Centennial year drawing to a close, Sarnelli said Small Planet’s performance of the World War I commemoration – which the Westfield-based volunteer dance troupe began presenting in 2014 – the centennial of the beginning of the war – may not be as much in demand. Still she feels their “living history” performances – which include the Civil War, World War II and Korea, Vietnam and more modern wartimes – are the best way to connect people with their past.
“We have the dances and the reading and people connect [with the era], “ she said. “They could read a book about it, but this way, they connect with [the history].”
Those who can’t make the Nov. 11 performance at the Springfield Armory can also see the Small Planet Dancers present “Remembering the War to End all Wars” on Nov. 10 at 11 a.m. at the South Hadley Public Library, 2 Canal St., South Hadley. The free program will include a presentation of the colors by the Veterans of Foreign Wars WWI Centennial Honor Guard to open the program.