At a young age, he’s digging the past 

  • Shane Bowen peers Wednesday over the top of the World War I-era trench he has built in the backyard of his family’€™s home in Epsom. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Shane Bowen wears a WWII-era Army wool shirt outside his home where he has dug a trench replica in his backyard on Wendesday, January 6, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Shane Bowen loves to learn about war, which is why he built World War I trenches in his backyard of his home in Epsom on Wednesday, January 6, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Shane Bowen, 12, uses a pickaxe to dig through the World War I-era trench he’s built. His great grandfather’s friend, a former WWII POW who recently passed away, helped spark Shane’s interest in the era.

  • Shane Bowen wears a WWII-era Army outfit outside his home where he has dug a trench replica in his backyard on Wendesday, January 6, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Shane Bowen loves to learn about war, which is why he built World War I trenches in his backyard of his home in Epsom. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The items in Shane Bowen’s World War I-era trench—including his clothing were authentic although the pistol was a toy replica. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 1/10/2021 6:22:22 PM

The recent world history class taught by Mr. Bowen, age 12, began in his backyard, on a rainy, snowy, muddy morning.

He dressed for the day, with a World War II-era Army button-down shirt, and pants once worn during the First World War. He pointed to the greatest show-and-tell presentation in Granite State history:

A 30-foot long trench, complete with shoe-sucking mud under a wooden plank walkway, a sunken stage dug to recreate trench warfare, the most identifying image from World War I.

“A lot of soldiers were bored and sitting for months and got trench foot,” Bowen told me. “The Germans used mustard gas and chlorine gas. Chlorine was clear and smelled like wet hay. You died right away.”

The teacher, a student at Epsom Central School, traces this unique hobby, which includes vast knowledge of historical facts and the weaponry used in the 20th century, back about seven years.

His teacher then, in this case his great grandfather’s friend, had been a prisoner of war during World War II. Something clicked for Shane, then 5 or 6. His mother, Renee Bowen, said this man was a big influence.

“Shane was still young and he was a big person in his life,” Renee said. “He was too young to figure out the realities of war, and then this man died.”

He was not forgotten, however. His impact blended nicely into Shane’s other interests, like playing Call of Duty, cooking, Boy Scouts, football and working out.

He also shows his horse, Beau Beau, who’s part of this 5½-acre life that includes another horse, a pony, two barn cats, two goats and 20 chickens.

And another part of this story is also Walton-esque: Shane, an only child, lives with his parents, his grandparents and his great grandparents.

His grandmother, Nancy Bosselman, leaned against her door frame recently, arms folded for warmth, and said, “It’s wonderful spending time with him. I don’t know if he thinks it’s wonderful. He’s got a lot of bosses.”

Not when it comes to war. In war, Shane is the general. The family friend who introduced him to war and its nuances left him powerful steamer-trunk stuff:

Documents proving he was a POW. A black-and-white photo showing a GI smoking. German writing. All enclosed in a leather-bound folder.

Shane listed off various weapons that he’s studied: the M1 Garand. The Thompson submachine gun. The M1919 Browning machine gun.

He knew about tanks, the Sherman Tank for the United States opposing the German Tiger Tanks during World War II.

“The United States,” Shane told me, “hated the Tiger Tanks because they were so well armored.”

He was shy before opening up, typical for a 12-year-old, but he knew and appreciated something that, sadly, many students ignore.

He knew World War II didn’t begin with the Japanese strike on Pearl Harbor. He knew that the U.S. feared Germany early in the war due to lack of preparation, and our atomic weapons ended the war and changed the world. He knew six million Jewish people died in the Nazi death camps.

He says he feels the hardships from history, but will have a larger appreciation when he gets older. He’s certainly gotten the jump on other students. Right now, it’s a fascination.

Meanwhile, he looks for old uniforms at antique shops and sometimes participates in reenactments.

And he’s building a trench. He used the family tractor to start, then got into the trenches with pickaxe and shovel. His father and friends have helped.

Shane had the World War I doughboy look last week, with his pants puffed outward just below his hips and tucked tightly below, into what Shane said were called tuppees.

He moved down slippery terrain to reach the bottom of the trench, in the mud, which was fitting for this filthy war. His drab, olive colors blended with the clay and rock that surrounded him.

Shane built a sniper’s nest at the far end. He hung a German helmet from a nearby branch, flew an Irish flag because he didn’t have an American flag and stuck a branch into the clay wall and draped an ammunition belt around it.

There was a pistol, a gas mask, a pouch stuffed with a long bandage, items from the two world wars and the Korean War. There was some wood reinforcing the walls, and snow on top of the walls.

That’s where soldiers rested their guns and fired on advancing troops during World War I, fought from 1914 to 1918. Check the old photos. The trench in Epsom looks very much like those dug in France.

Looking for more realism, Shane plans on expanding the trench when it gets warmer. Maybe add a few turns. After all, the actual trenches used during World War I were hundreds of miles long.

It might be an eyesore to some, but there’s no question that Shane’s trench digs deep into history. It’s Mr. Bowen’s history class.

“I don’t think he’ll ever be done,” Renee said. “Maybe someday, I’ll have a nice backyard.”

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