Uncovering the First World War

Written by: Simon Bendry | Published:
Legacy: Students from Chailey School and Henry Cort lay a wreath at the Menin Gate during their battlefields tour trip

The First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours have been helping schools to connect the First World War to their local communities – as well as to the political and social issues of today – to make the war relevant and personal to the lives of our students. Simon Bendry explains

In March this year, Comres conducted polling which suggested that two-thirds (66 per cent) of British adults do not believe that young people today understand the historical significance of the First World War.

A majority of all age groups reached this conclusion, including 58 per cent of those aged 18 to 24, and 75 per cent of over-65s.

While these results demonstrated the on-going challenges that teachers face in developing a deep historical understanding within their classrooms, my experiences working with schools up and down the country show there is a great passion among students for learning about historical topics such as the First World War, if they are taught in a dynamic and engaging way.

Claire McKay, who teaches history and humanities at the Henry Cort Community College in Fareham, Hampshire, highlighted the challenge of broadening historical understanding when she explained how, a number of years ago, she was concerned when she asked her class about the meaning of the word “remembrance”.

She said that while her students could talk freely about poppies and a minute’s silence, they struggled to think more critically about the act and value of remembrance, and viewed the concept in a superficial way.
In many schools, the practices and curriculum have not been developed to properly ignite student interest in historical concepts like remembrance, and events such as the First World War.

However, I am increasingly hearing positive stories from schools, including Henry Cort, about changes they have made to their history teaching in order to connect past events with personal and relevant topics.

I am in continual dialogue with teachers who have participated in the First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours programme, and developed follow-up Legacy 110 projects on their return home. They have found ways to connect the First World War to their local communities, as well as recent events, which has allowed students to place the war in a local and global context, and make it personal to their own lives.

Making history local

With today’s young people increasingly unable to draw on the insights of grandparents and great-grandparents to learn about the First World War, it is crucial that the events of 100 years ago are connected to local people and places to provide a source of context.

Levenshulme High School in Manchester provides an example of a school that has recently restructured its teaching of the First World War to move beyond traditional narratives, which include the horrors of trench life, the Battle of the Somme, and the armistice, and switch more of its focus to local investigation.

Having previously had no idea about the relevance of a plaque hanging in the school hall, dedicated to men who died during the war, student research has found that all the men lived within the local vicinity, the majority served in the Manchester Regiment, and a couple were killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

The stories of these local soldiers is now going to form the centre of the school’s work on the First World War, which will look at their reasons for joining the army, their journey through the war, and the impact that their involvement had on the local community.

This is one example of a Legacy 110 project that has been undertaken by students on their return from a programme tour of the First World War battlefield sites, where they are able to gain a tangible insight into the setting of the conflict, and appreciate the sacrifices made by the people whose names they read on the headstones and memorials.

Through such Legacy 110 projects, students are able to forge personal connections with those who fought from their local area, and are encouraged to engage with at least 110 people in their community. If all participating students do this, 888,246 people will have been reached, equalling the total number of British and Commonwealth soldiers who lost their lives in the conflict.

Laura Oldroyd, who teaches history at Levenshulme, says that by shifting the focus to the local community, students not only become more intrigued by the events of the war, but are able to develop greater investigative skills. They get the chance to research the movements of the Manchester Regiment, and draw on sources ranging from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s website to local archives. In addition, maps of France and Belgium, satellite images and maps from the period allow students to better understand the terrain within which local soldiers fought.

By bringing an abstract historical event into the immediate surroundings, students become more inspired to think deeply about concepts such as “remembrance”, and come to understand the First World War in a much more personal way.

Linking history to today’s society/culture

In making the First World War relevant to students, teachers can not only draw attention to the war’s impact on local communities, but also to wider social and cultural issues that engulf the lives of students. As difficult as it might be to imagine, the First World War is still connected to many of the political debates that we read about on a daily basis.

At Henry Cort, the study of the war has been one aspect of the spiritual, moral, social and cultural (SMSC) education developed by the school. As part of this, students are encouraged to think about the world around them, its processes, values, and communities, and how these might develop in future. Such thinking allows students to put events like the First World War in their proper historical context, and draw interesting comparisons with current debates.

For instance, students at Henry Cort have drawn connections between the nationalism displayed during the First World War and that shown recently in aspects of the Brexit referendum. Drawing such links has allowed students to consider both the positive and negative aspects of nationalism, and ask ethical questions such as whether the recruitment posters used during the First World War were morally justified.
In addition, students have studied the difference in today’s attitudes towards the mental health of soldiers from the time of the First World War, and have also contrasted the alliance system in operation prior to the war with the relations between countries in our present international framework.

The critical skills developed through SMSC education were furthered when students participated in a Centenary Battlefields Tour, where they were given a platform to think critically and independently, ask questions for themselves, and consider the complex nature of the war’s impact. They were given the chance to ask specific questions on topics ranging from medical developments, to military discipline and leadership, for example.

What also proved inspirational to students was the presence of British Army soldiers on the tour, which not only provided another source of information, but enlivened the similarities between the experiences of today’s soldiers and those who fought in the First World War. Rather than talk about the war in a dominant or overriding way, the soldiers were one source from which students could draw information from, in their tackling of the war’s controversies with tour guides, teachers and peers.

In embedding the First World War within a wider programme of SMSC teaching, students are able to think more critically about the conflict from a position of greater social and cultural awareness, and utilise their understanding of the war when studying more recent events. This holistic approach makes history relevant, and enhances student interest across the board.

A personal experience

Whether it be connecting the First World War to local people and communities, as has been the focus at Levenshulme, or drawing links between the war and our wider social, cultural and moral context, as Henry Cort has done through its revised curriculum, it is important for schools to allow students to develop connections with the past.

That way, students will see the relevance of what they are studying, and be able to associate historical events with their own town or city, right through to the dominant global issues of the day. As a result, students can unpick concepts like “remembrance” to a much greater extent, and think critically about the ways in which historical events like the First World War link to present events.

Modifying teaching practices and the curriculum in this way does not mean a dramatic overhaul of history teaching, or the complete abandonment of more traditional teaching resources. As Ms Oldroyd stresses, Levenshulme High aims for a blend between traditional topics such as life in the trenches with more locally focused investigation, rather than a replacement of one with the other.

What is certain, though, is that students have taken great inspiration and developed a far deeper understanding from battlefield tours and the Legacy 110 projects when they have linked the historical to the personal, and this is something that I would encourage all schools to do.

  • Simon Bendry is director of the First World War Battlefield Tours Programme.

Battlefield Tours and Legacy 110

The free government-funded First World War Battlefield Tours programme is delivered by UCL Institute of Education and school tour operator Equity. It offers two students and one teacher from all secondary and middle schools in England a free four-day coach tour of the First World War battlefields, and culminates in spring 2019.

Legacy 110 is the project element of the First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours programme. The significance of the number is that if all students who participate reach out to at least 110 members of their community through their post-tour project, they will reach 888,246 people – the same number of British and Commonwealth soldiers who lost their lives.

For more on Legacy 110 or to register your interest in the First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours, visit www.centenarybattlefieldtours.org


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