How secondary schools can teach pupils to learn about First World War's legacy

Posted on on 28 March 2014
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A report by Centenary News contributor Dr. Jillian Davidson on the recent conference in London: “Schools and the Great War Centenary: How Schools Should Best Prepare.”

Wellington College convened, on March 13, in Central Hall, Westminster, London, a leading group of academics, teachers and broadcasters to consider the question of how best to commemorate the Centenary of the First World War in British secondary schools. 1020 delegates from 600 schools attended.

In a statement, Prime Minister David Cameron emphasised: “I want to put children at the front and centre of those commemorations, so that they understand the significance of the conflict and the debt we owe that generation.”

Andrew Murrison MP, Special Representative for the Centenary Commemorations of the First World War said: “This is an opportunity to establish the educational legacy (of the war). The legacy must be a better understanding of the cause, conduct and consequences.”

Dr. Anthony Seldon, headmaster of Wellington College and conference  chairman, welcomed 2014-18 as an “opportunity, which will not repeat itself in our lifetime.”

History boys

The event almost resembled a large-scale performance of “The History Boys.” Author Michael Morpurgo, one of the speakers, even quoted Alan Bennett’s fictional teacher, Hector, instructing his pupils to “Pass it on, boys. That’s the game I want you to learn. Pass it on.”

Many speakers stressed their personal connection to the war. Dr Seldon spoke of his grandfather who was shot in the head in battle and became a depressive.

Journalist Jeremy Paxman claimed that his interest in the war began with a family connection. His great uncle Charlie died in 1915. A photo of his great uncle on the wall was an active presence or present absence in Paxman’s childhood.

Mr Paxman said: “The First World War is the most important event in the modern history of our country; the event that made modern Britain. That is the reason we need to understand it and that is the reason we need to commemorate it.”

He added: “There has been an awful lot of nonsense talked on the subject. I think at the very least we owe these men and women a duty of respect and remembrance.

"I don’t have brilliant ideas that this should be celebrated with school parties as some idiots have suggested but a quiet reverence is the very least we owe these people.”

Michael Morpurgo, a former teacher, recommended stories as the best way for schools to prepare.

“The best way of holding attention was to tell a story which mattered to me. If your students know it matters to you, you have a good chance that it will matter to them.”

The story of Morpurgo’s “Private Peaceful” has become the Unknown Soldier for schoolchildren in Britain. 

Plays are even better than books, Mr Morpurgo said.

“Shakespeare was right, even if out of context. Drama and music are best at touching students.“

And, to prove his point, he sang “Only remembered” from the stage version of “War Horse” to a mesmerised crowd.

The Wipers Times

Introducing himself as “the supply teacher who comes in with the videos,” Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye and writer of the television drama The Wipers Times, presented his TV drama about the satirical newspaper from the front line as an authentic voice of the trenches, not one of a later revisionism.

Showing video clips and taking out what he called his prize possession, an original copy of The Wipers Times, with mud on its back page, he read from it.

Even a century later, he proved that the trench journal of Captain Fred Roberts and Lieutenant Jack Pearson is still breathtakingly comic. “It has an amazing ability to surprise you, the people you are teaching.”

In his opinion, it is even funnier than the Blackadder comedy series. It's anti-authoritarian voice is a valuable reminder that there is a place for laughter in the commemoration of the war.

Half have no graves

Jay Winter, a professor of history at Yale University, recommended that the focus in schools should not be on the war’s causes, nor on the debate whether this was a just or unjust war, nor on whether its leaders were good or bad, but on those who fought.

“We historians can lead the way and help our students ponder the loss of life.”

The question of who died was most fundamental, but one so difficult to answer because of the chaos of modern war. Half of the men have no known graves.

In the last year, the figure of casualties has been increased to over ten million. In Britain, one in eight died on active service, which was slightly less than in France and Germany.

Battlefield tours

Professor Stuart Foster, executive director of the Government’s £5.3 million First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme emphasised the importance of travel to the Front and graves.

The programme allows for one teacher and two pupils from year 9 in every state secondary school to visit for free. 1200 out of 4000 schools have already registered. Every tour bus will have 16 teachers and 32 pupils, an almost unprecedented teacher to student ratio.

Pupils will look at an individual soldier, his birth records, his school records, his military service papers, his unit war diaries, his local newspapers, and his grave. They will be able to do their own research on They will be able to go on Google maps and see where their soldier died.

Through developing a personal connection, they will be able to transition to the bigger questions of their little stories: Why did the “boys” join? How was the Home Front affected by the war? Was the Somme really a disaster?

The tours are being run in collaboration with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the Imperial War Museum, the Heritage Lottery Fund, National Archives, accredited Battlefield guides as well as key agencies in Belgium and France.

On their return, pupils will be expected to share their results with other schools and their communities.

Gina Koutsika, head of programmes and projects at the IWM, also outlined a ten-step guide for teachers and students.

Changing view of the war

Closing the conference, Professor Hew Strachan, of Oxford University, emphasised the importance and changing nature of the war’s previous anniversaries.

“These anniversaries matter because they cause us to reflect and to place ourselves within some sort of continuum with the past.”

In 1918, there was no master narrative of the war. But with the marking of each major anniversary, the war changed its identity.

In 1928, to mark the first ten-year anniversary of the end of war, there was the “war books boom.”

Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front) was first serialized in a newspaper significantly on November 10, 1928.

The majority of the books published focused on the horrors of the trenches and how difficult it was for the generation who fought in the trenches to return to a postwar life.

The fiftieth anniversary of the start of the war, in 1964, was the anniversary, which most shaped how speakers at the conference thought about the war.

Alan Clark’s The Donkeys, published in 1961, inspired the musical satire against the generals Oh, What a Lovely War! It coincided with the rise of anti-Vietnam War protests and the overwhelming anti-war feeling of that time.

On November 11, 2008, to mark the 90th anniversary of the War’s end, the last surviving veterans Henry Allingham, Bill Stone and Harry Patch, forming a combined age of 330, laid a wreath at the Cenotaph.

Commemorators, at the time, desperately aware that this was the last chance to interview and highlight veterans of the war, placed the veterans at the centre of commemoration.

Fresh debate

With no living veterans remaining, World War One has passed from the realm of present memory to that of historical engagement. This anniversary will subsequently have to be different. “We need a fresh debate,” Professor Strachan warned. “Otherwise it is boring and sterile.”

Professor Strachan also emphasised the need to escape from the clichés that have distorted the Great War as the ‘bad war’ in contrast to the Second World War as the ‘good war’.

The moral dilemmas which war always raises were there in the Second World War as well as in 1914-18.

Burying stereotypes was a vital part of commemoration, in his view.

© Centenary Digital Ltd & Author