Hodder History Expert Blog

Using War memorials in teaching the Great War – more than just stone!
By Dean Evans
06 Mar
There are more than 100,000 war memorials in the UK alone and many of them will be the focus of reflection for Armistice Day and Remembrance services every year. But rather than simply being sites of mourning and reflection, they can be used very effectively as sites of learning in the classroom. I have used war memorials to begin and end all of my schemes of work on the First World War because they offer opportunities to discuss important concepts such as interpretation and significance; provide cross curricular links with art and design, as well as citizenship, and finally invites the trendy issue (although my students never believe I should be allowed to use the word ‘trendy’ while wearing a tweed jacket in class) of collective memory being just as important as history.
By starting with local war memorials at the beginning of a scheme of work, you can find out what students know about the war and how it has been perceived – given that many probably know and frequently walk past their local memorial. It is how the war has been perceived that particularly interests me – getting the students to understand that the memory and preconceptions of the war is not necessarily what happened during the war is a big issue for us. A memorial is just as worthy of being compared to an extract of Private Peaceful, or dare I say an extract from Blackadder Goes Forth – because all are an interpretation of war (not fact – as Gove wrongly assumed we use them as). The memorials create a fiction of war just like Morpurgo does in his popular books. With students using memorials as a starting point to understanding what the war was like and its importance, they can return to the same memorials and judge whether they were an accurate portrayal of the war. How do the memorials compare to their new knowledge? Do the class think their memorials are appropriate or effective? What even makes an effective memorial? All questions I would ask my class. I confuse the issue even more by getting them to compare their local memorials to national and international ones, such as those we visited in Ypres and the Somme, as well as getting them to evaluate whether something more unusual like Blackadder is a memorial or not. They can analyse the main message that this source is trying to make (ie. about the war’s leadership) and compare it to their class work/own knowledge on Haig, etc. and then evaluate the interpretation with a ‘how accurate is this view?’ question. Memorials can be more than just chiselled stone.
At the end of such a unit I return to memorials with a fixed project on students having to ‘save’ their local memorial (stealing the BBC Restoration, Restoration, Restoration show whereby Griff Rhys Jones convinced the nation to save heritage sites by voting for one to receive funding). They have to persuade us the importance of their memorial and why it is interesting. With this we get them to think about the purpose of a memorial, the shapes they can take (link to design) and how they create different views of war and soldiers’ lives – whether it was a Christ-like sacrifice with the cross symbol being used, or as a noble warrior like Canterbury’s memorial which is adorned with medieval knights intricately carved into it. A great opportunity to study change and continuity arises too here – how did the soldiers’ attitudes to war change over time, using previous lessons on propaganda and ‘war enthusiasm’ (or just acceptance) to ‘terrible trench life’ to a return to ‘just and noble’ in a post-1918 Britain using war memorials as evidence.
In summary, war memorials provide a great opportunity to challenge so many key concepts as well as a focus for local and national history to tie a scheme of work around. We should not be afraid to use memorials in different ways and use novels and films as memorials to push what the word ‘memorial’ means to students. Just as important, we should not view the local memorial as truth and worry about the issue of respect – as memory can get in the way of history a bit too often, especially with the First World War. 
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