How do we teach the First World War in Schools?

‘Whatever else war is, it is always horrific’

– Richard Aldridge in ‘IMPACT 21: How ought war to be remembered in schools?’

Last month, IMPACT (an initiative of the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain) organised a seminar led by David Aldridge, lecturer at Oxford Brookes. Held at the Institute of Education, Aldridge and his co-panellists discussed: ‘How Ought War to be Remembered in Schools?’

History teachers aren’t faced with the easiest of tasks; it’s already a challenge to engender a memory of events that students (and often teachers, themselves) didn’t experience first-hand. Teaching the First World War, a war often seen as morally neutral, can be doubly tricky. In history lessons, there are aspects that are black and white: Asquith was Prime Minister in office at the outbreak of war; the Battle of Liege began on the 5th of August, 1914; the war was primarily fought in trenches. But it’s the grey areas that also need addressing whenever we teach, talk, or even think about the past. Aldridge pointed out that, as educators, whenever there’s reasonable disagreeance on an issue, we need to teach that variance.

Aldridge argues that the horrors of war need to be communicated for students: images and narratives of soldiers – including children and young adults – killed or wounded. He advises educational institutions to ‘consider whether the rituals and practices they engage in around remembrance successfully communicate the horror of war’ (Aldridge, 2014: 6).

Aldridge’s fellow panellists also shared their thoughts. Jerome Freeman, Director of the First World War Centenary Battlefields Programme (run by the Institute of Education and Equity), emphasised the importance of going beyond the horror to encourage students to really discover the First World War. While schools often opt to teach the Second World War over the First, the FWW has been largely undertaught. The Battlefields Programme enables two students and one teacher from every state-funded secondary school in England to visit battlefields on the Western Front between 2014 and 2019. Students are encouraged to research their own family connections to the war, but the tours are important historically, not just emotionally. Freeman emphasised the significance of discovering the political and social consequences of war, while also engaging with historiography – was it a just war? What were the consequences? The tours are built around these key questions, while also probing the issue of remembrance. Who, what, why and how do we remember?

In the IOE Archive workshops we deliver in local primary schools, we use archives to tell the stories of ‘ordinary’ individuals during the war. How did the Great War impact men, women, children? These details range from photographs of children setting up gardens to address food shortages on the home front, to letters describing life in the trenches, to applications made to tribunals for exemption from military service. Working primarily with primary schools, we ensure the horrors are not overplayed; rather, children develop a sense of how nearly every aspect of life was impacted by the war in some way.

Pupils tend to a school garden. Image via Imperial War Museum via www1schools.com

Pupils tend to a school garden.  Allotment-style gardens were developed in available areas of land during the Great War – including school playing fields.
Image via Imperial War Museum via www1schools.com

However, that doesn’t mean skirting around the terrors and tragedies of the war, including the realities of Britain’s own role. We worked with a Year 5 class in Camden who were busy learning about conscientious objectors. Through the archives and classroom discussions, students were fully aware of the harsh consequences faced by COs. Moreover, as pupils carefully considered why pacifists objected to serving brought to the fore the daily realities of war: the very fact that, as Aldridge pointed out, ‘war is killing, not just dying’.

A Year 6 student commented that he had recently read Private Peaceful, a Michael Morpurgo novel (spoilers ahead). In the novel, a young soldier, Thomas ‘Tommo’ Peaceful, reflects on his life in the trenches of the First World War. It’s revealed that Tommo is to be executed by firing squad in the morning for cowardice, and serves as an honest examination of soldiers killed on the grounds of cowardice or desertion. The student simply, and thoughtfully, remarked: ‘I couldn’t believe stuff like that happened by our own army… wasn’t there enough killing?’

As with teaching of any sort, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way. But we also have the knowledge that history too often repeats itself.  One of the best things we can do as educators is to ensure students have a multi-faceted understanding of the range of issues and perspectives which surround any historical event, particularly when it comes to conflicts and peace-keeping.  Aldridge suggests it’s imperative that we remember the horrors of war, ‘so that we continue to make every effort to avoid or at least condemn unnecessary conflict in the future’ (Aldridge, 2014: 5).

Relevant Educator Resources:

The Interwar Peace Movement: lesson plan from the IOE Archives
While our archive collections don’t contain a great deal on the graphic horrors of war, the National Union of Women Teachers collection contains papers, leaflets and correspondence relating to the post-war peace movement and their support of/for conscientious objectors.

Learn Peace: An education project by the Peace Pledge Union