Hodder History Expert Blog

The First World War: What's the point?
By Dean Evans
19 Feb
Back in July 2013, Hodder Education asked me to write a set of blogs based around an SHP workshop I ran on using local war memorials for studying historical significance and interpretation.

A lot of First World War goodies and projects have come my way since last summer with a Research Masters, exhibition and council projects, and the approaching centenary added to the pile. With all of this focus on these significant four years of world history, I find myself asking the same infuriating question as Kenneth Williams did at the end of his infamous diaries: 'Ah, what’s the bloody point?' (a strange source to quote I admit, but a good question nonetheless, and my copy of his diaries was staring at me whilst writing this blog).

What is the point of studying The First World War ? What is it that we want our students to learn about? Sure, it sounds like a bit of a silly question at first – why question a topic or scheme of work that is in every KS3 folder. ‘Why do we study Agincourt or the Reformation?’ may be equally valid questions for my year 7 and 8 schemes too, yet it is the way the War is commemorated and referred to that worries me.

I hear no one annually crying out ‘We shall remember them’ and laying flowers with reference to the soldiers in Flanders in 1415. The First World War has not lost its objectivity a century later – it never had it in the first place. We need to remove ourselves from the traditions that society created from 1918 onwards, to objectively analyse the war. All of the fantastic research and shows on radio and television, as a result of the centenary, invite us to challenge our preconceptions and old schemes of work on the First World War. Let’s renew or at the very least rethink what the point of teaching the First World War to our younger students could be.

In opposition to Gove’s singular ‘war was just and honourable’ view of the War, Elizabeth Truss, childcare minister in the Department for Education, spoke out against this. She told the House of Commons in mid-January, that ‘teachers should inform pupils that there are varying views on the conflict and that it was up to teachers to decide how they taught the subject’. Truss said: 'The programme of study requires pupils to understand that different versions of past events may exist, and why this is so.' It is fantastic to hear a politician who understands not only how important freedom is to a teacher, but understands how history works too!
Revisionism has swung the pendulum of historical thinking on the War far enough to warrant us as history teachers to incorporate this thinking into our teaching. We need more academic rigor in how we approach this topic and the centenary allows us that opportunity. The First World War can be used to teach historiography and the craft of making history, much better than any other topic I would argue. Many topics are worthy of exploring historiography and how interpretations change. Just take a look at the questions and responses from students on Richard III after the great King in the car park discovery. Yet again though, it is how we remember the War so much more than any other topic that prioritises it. Our assemblies at my school arguably perpetuate myths of the war and make its lessons sound didactic and even a moral crusade at times. Even our house system is based around fallen old boys of the school as men of virtue to emulate – ‘look up to these officers of the War’. The rhetoric is caught between intentionally not glorifying war, yet at the same time honouring those who fell and their virtues which war highlighted. This ambivalence towards war is more than understandable. But we should discuss this divide in detail in our history classes. These assemblies on the War change with the pace of snails (if at all), but our lessons should certainly not. Evidence proves people, both civilians and soldiers, supported the War (mostly) with their copy of Brookes’ poetry in hand with a mind blissfully ignorant of these Sassoon and Owen chaps until the late 1920s. Let’s get students challenging the views of War along with historians’ works.
The First World War provides us as teachers the chance to get our students to understand and challenge history at Key Stage 3 levels. We want them to ask ‘why does our textbook say this, when you are saying that?’ and say ‘I think you are wrong’ to us. War is great for empathy and is a great tale to tell (as many fiction authors have realised over the years) but it can be used to teach and learn about how history is made and not just how terrible the trenches were or analysing the impact of DORA. To paraphrase E. H. Carr, history is after all, not the study of what happened, but rather what historians have said has happened.

Let’s bring more academic study into teaching The First World War and make the point of studying it more than just a tale of trench life. 
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