June 21, 2023

History professor Dr. Amelia Lyons has created a classroom research experience that impacts undergraduate students, graduate students and a global community of veterans. 

French historian Amelia Lyons has found a thoughtful way to engage undergraduate and graduate students in research, while simultaneously creating a meaningful product for international and local audiences.

Lyons launched the Florida-France Soldier Stories research project in her classroom after hearing Mary Lou Roberts, a historian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, give a talk on students writing biographies on World War II veterans buried in France’s American Epinal Cemetery. Lyons, always searching for innovative ways to link French history with topics that interest students, thought, “I can do this; it’s perfect for teaching research methods.”

The Florida-France Soldier Stories project uncovers the stories of Floridians who served in World War II and are buried in France. This project teaches students how to do research by weaving together historical narratives using primary and secondary sources. Through this process, Lyons’ students learn about what World War I veteran and French historian Marc Bloch called the “historian’s craft.”

Each student in the class writes a biography of a Floridian who served and died in Europe during World War II, and was subsequently buried in an American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) cemetery in France. Students use census records, newspaper articles, military records and other archival materials that can be accessed via digital archives. Students are also taught how to use secondary source research to place the veteran’s experience in context. As students conduct their research, they learn about local history, Florida in the early twentieth century and the war in France.

Lyons has observed that history and historical subjects are brought to life and made personal for the students that work on the Florida-France Soldier Stories project. During the process of learning research methods, many students become emotionally attached to their assigned veteran, with many often referring to their research subject as “my veteran.”

She recalls: “Just this term, we were talking about a veteran from Palm Beach County, and a student in class shouted out: ‘That’s my hometown. Oh my God, I had no idea that Ross Road is named for Donald Ross — I know Ross Road, and Ross shopping center. Why didn’t I know this?’“

The work doesn’t end with the undergraduate researchers. At the end of the term, graduate students fact-check and edit the student-authored biographies, write metadata for and digitize the biographies for online publication on the Florida-France Soldier Stories website. The undergraduate students then get credit for a publication — an important credential for their resumes.

This spring, Lyons was invited by the Benjamin Franklin Post 605, Paris, of Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW 605) to speak about the project at the organization’s annual banquet.

The VFW is a non-profit veterans service organization founded in 1898 after the Spanish American War to promote camaraderie among U.S. veterans who have served in overseas conflicts. Since its inception, it has advocated for veterans to receive the benefits that they have earned and be recognized for their sacrifices made as members of the U.S. Armed Forces. Benjamin Franklin Post 605, according to Quartermaster Charles Steiner, “is the oldest VFW Post in Europe chartered in 1927” and remains one of Europe’s most vibrant VFW posts.

Amelia Lyons presents her project to an audience at the Luxembourg PalaceIn 2021, Walter Benjamin, a member of Post 605, met Lyons and then-student Elizabeth Klements ’18 MA’22 in St. Avold, France, where he assisted them in finding the Lorraine American Cemetery. Benjamin, retired from the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC), suggested Lyons as speaker for the future event and Quartermaster Steiner invited Lyons to present her research on Florida veterans who fought in France during World War II, in an elegant ballroom packed with American veterans, their families and French military Veterans at the historic Luxembourg Palace in Paris.

After hearing Lyons speak about the project, Post Commander Mark Primmer thanked Lyons “for sharing with us all what you are doing. Your message really helped strengthen our collective connection with the French veterans.”

Lyons says it was an unforgettable experience. “Such an amazing group, setting and reception. I am not sure there is a more perfect audience for this project,” she says. “Some in France do not understand why I would want to deviate from my research on French history. Some in the U.S. do not understand much about these cemeteries or the men buried in them. You all understand; I hardly had to explain the work. I will keep doing it, and hopefully as more people read the work my students do, they will understand, as we do, why their stories matter, why we have to tell them.”

To learn more about the Florida-France Soldier Story project, visit https://projects.cah.ucf.edu/fl-francesoldierstories/.