LC in History: The Great War

Dr. Clifton W. Potter Jr., LC History Professor~

During spring break I received several pieces of mail dealing with the commemoration of the centennial of the end of World War I, which will take place on November 11, 2018. Even one of my favorite television programs, “Timeless,” marked its return to primetime with an episode dealing with the Great War.  All this brought to mind one of my fondest memories of my years at Lynchburg College. In the spring of 1966, Robert Hailey directed R.C. Sheriff’s award-winning drama Journey’s End. First produced in London in 1928, the play is set in a British army dugout near Saint-Quentin, Aisne, France in late March 1918.  Hailey was finishing his doctorate, and this production was one of the final projects required for the completion of his degree at Case-Western Reserve University.

I entered LC on a drama scholarship, and thus I could not resist the temptation to read for Journey’s End, and I was one of two faculty members in the all-male cast. Dr. Robert Whitmore and I were also co-sponsors of the class of 1969.  The set proved to be one of the main characters in Hailey’s production. At the end of the play, the officers’ dugout takes a direct hit and part of the set collapses on an actor wrapped in a blanket and lying on his bunk. (He was not injured at any time.) Every night the collapse of part of the ceiling brought the audience to its feet!  Working with American Legion, every World War I veteran in the Lynchburg area was located and invited as a guest to opening night. They filled the first two center rows. One of them had been gassed and it took him half an hour to climb the stairs to Hopwood Auditorium; there was no elevator in Hopwood then, but he was determined to see the play.  

We were in dress rehearsal every night of the last week before opening because we had to get used to our uniforms, boots and full kit. During the first tech-rehearsal, the cast had a two-hour break, so the four lieutenants decided to pay a visit to Sheldon Vanauken, the resident Anglophile. His cottage, then known as the “Birdhouse,” was behind the library, so it was only a short walk.  When he opened his door he showed no surprise in finding four “British officers” on his front porch. Van invited us to make ourselves at home while he brewed a pot of coffee. When we were finished, Van took a volume of war verse from his bookshelf, and after he read the first poem, he asked each one of us to select something from the book to share. I was the last to read, and I chose “The Soldier” by Rupert Brooke. When I finished there was not a sound in the room, and then a lone bird warbled its farewell to the dying day and the spell was broken.  We collected our caps, said goodbye, and wandered back to Hopwood in the gathering twilight. I will always treasure every moment of that evening.