If you have ever wandered through the real-life labyrinth that is the McCormick Tribune Campus Center (MTCC), then you are likely familiar with Bob Potter’s Alley, a recessed row of public computers and printers within the heart of our campus’s main hub. Dedicated to Dr. Robert J. Potter in February of 2013, this line of computers serves many students well as a work and recreation space. At any given time of day, assuming the MTCC is open, at least one student can be seen hunkered over a computer in the trench, skimming through an online textbook, solving a series of mathematical equations, or just watching some recreational YouTube clips. However, lost to the history of the university is the role that Potter’s famous alley played in the frontlines of World War I (WWI).
Regarded by many as the first modern war, many historical teachings and media portrayals of WWI gravitate towards its Western Front, where the rural countryside of western Europe was torn apart by years of artillery strikes, gas attacks, and the iconic image of miles of trench networks scarring the earth. It was in this setting that the Bob Potter Trench Line would see its first (but unfortunately not only) glimpse of the total depravity of humans.
Initially constructed out of the standard-issue lines of mud, wooden boards, rats, and a healthy dose of absolute hopelessness, the Bob Potter Trench Line was officially ready for duty by March of 1918, where it was immediately deployed to Saint-Quentin, Aisne in northern France. Its coming could not have been more unfortunate, however, as this was the same time that German Empire launched its infamous Ludendorff Offensive (also known as the Kaiserschlacht, or “Kaiser’s Battle”) in a last-ditch to finally break through the Allied line. Operation Michael marked the beginning of the campaign, as the German Empire’s Second, Seventh, Eighth, Seventeenth, and Eighteenth Armies were mobilized across the Western Front against the British Third and Fifth Armies. Over one million artillery shells were fired by the Germans in the span of five hours on March 21, and the Bob Potter Trench Line was right on the front of this strike.
What followed was over five months of back-and-forth combat, as the Bob Potter Trench Line saw its inhabitants switch sides from British to German and back (sometimes multiple times in a single day) as the Pyrrhic nature of trench warfare eventually wore down both sides. By late April 1918, the hope of a German breakthrough had passed. By August, an Allied counterattack (with the help of the newly arrived American Expeditionary Force) had reclaimed all ground lost in the Ludendorff Offensive, eventually leading to the German Empire’s collapse that November.
All along the way, the Bob Potter Trench Line served the Allies dutifully, being the home-away-from-home for thousands of shell-shocked and weary soldiers. As with almost every WWI trench, its familiar patches of mud, vermin, disease-ridden corpses, constant artillery and sniper fire, and pervasive sense of mortality helped to remind its inhabitants that they were, in fact, in one of human history’s worst conflicts.
Heroes are among us every day. Some may be our family members. Others are our friends and co-workers. Still others are the dimly lit campus structures that we run to in order to print our resumes at the last minute. Sometimes it helps to take a moment and thank these heroes for the sacrifices they made and the duties they performed.