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The Centre for Hidden Histories: Taking the First World War into Schools

Pupils from Blue Coat Junior School give a performance at St Matthew’s Church, Walsall on Remembrance Day 2016

The Centre for Hidden Histories: Taking the First World War into Schools

By Michael Noble, Centre Co-ordinator for the AHRC Funded WW1 Engagement Centre for Hidden Histories. More details on these Centres can be found by looking at the AHRC’s website.  

With a remit to engage the public with the topic of the First World War, the Centre for Hidden Histories has made working with schools a key component of our outreach work. We found a receptive audience. Not only does the First World War feature across the National Curriculum, in a range of different subjects, but many schools expressed an interest in engaging with the centenary as a means of giving pupils the opportunity to learn about life a century ago. Several schools sought HLF funding for extended projects on the war and were keen to receive expert support as well as gain access to university resources.

The Centre carried out a range of direct engagement activities with primary and secondary schools, both on campus and in the school classroom. A variety of topics were explored in these sessions, from the multi-national, multi-faith aspects of the war, to the role played by children and teenagers, to the impact of the war on the pupils’ own community, even, in some cases, on their school itself.

MEN OF THE ROYAL NAVY REPAIR LONDON’S BOMB DAMAGED HOUSES. 10 OCTOBER 1944, WESTWAY, SHEPHERD’S BUSH. (A 25880) Assistant Steward W G Collins, of Portsmouth (left) and Able Seaman George Gray, of Northshields rebuilding a parting wall. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205157541© IWM (A 25880)

The work was carried out with partners  including the Widening Participation team at the University of Nottingham and Whitworks Adventures in Theatre, a heritage arts organisation in the East Midlands. These collaborations were invaluable in providing first access to schools. Accessing schools can be a challenge – they have so many demands on their time that it can be difficult to find the space to fit in, so working alongside existing schemes and relationships offered a huge advantage.

Pupils from Stonelow Junior School are shown how to digitise physical objects at the University of Nottingham. Photo courtesy of Larissa Allwork. Photo courtesy of Larissa Allwork.

The sessions were grounded in the use of primary sources. We wanted to give the children the opportunity to experience the ‘raw material’ of history and to learn how to critically assess evidence and place it in context. We used census returns, photographs, letters, official documents and physical artefacts to open a window onto the world of the early twentieth century. Where possible, biographical narratives of real figures, both well-known and obscure, were used to put a human face on history.

We found that striking some note of familiarity, such as a closeness in place or through another connective link such as a football team, was a good place to start. Several of the schools had catchment areas that include Victorian terraced housing and the pupils were able to understand the war though tracing familiar streets in census returns and on maps. Pupils were often startled to realise that their own homes had ‘lives’ that preceded their own.

Pupils from Grassmoor Junior School give an emotional performance of the experiences of Mr George Rushton, who left his teaching job at the school to fight in the war. Photo Courtesy of Larissa Allwork

A handful of striking stories worked especially well. The stories of combatants like John Travers Cornwell, at 16, the war’s youngest VC recipient, or Sidney Lewis, who lied about his age and saw action on the Somme at the age of 13, struck a particular note. At one session in Walsall, the classroom erupted with shock and wonder at the story of Henry Tandey who, according to one famous account, declined to shoot the then-twentysomething Corporal Adolf Hitler. This led to a fascinating (and animated!) discussion about chronology, the nature of causality and the classic science fiction trope of ‘time travelling to stop Hitler’. The pupils also stopped to consider the moral position of Tandey, whose single act of mercy was to have a terrible afterlife.

Indeed, we were deeply impressed to find that even quite young pupils were able to engage in serious and considered debates about topics such as capital punishment for desertion (following the story of Peter Goggins, who was shot at dawn in 1917) or the different recognition of men and women. We examined the story of Charlotte Meade, who died from TNT poisoning after working in a London munitions factory. The pupils were asked, ‘did Charlotte give her life for the war effort?’. When they answered with an emphatic ‘yes’, we turned the discussion to the question, ‘so where are her medals?’.

MUNITIONS PRODUCTION ON THE HOME FRONT, 1914-1918 (Q 110204) A female munition worker at work in a factory at an undisclosed location. Copyright: © IWM (Q110204). Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205352885

One of the things we discovered through working with schools is that youngsters, particularly at primary age, have not fully absorbed the myths and common misunderstandings of the war that are found in older audiences. Few of them had any prior knowledge, but all of them expressed a thorough growing curiosity and desire to learn more.

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‘Without death there is no victory, but I am alive and very well’: Letters from Indian soldiers during World War I

These five letters, describing the experiences of Indian men in the army during the Great War, have been excerpted from Indian Voices of The Great War: Soldiers’ Letters, 1914-1918 by David Omissi. Omissi’s research reminds us of the Indian Army’s involvement on the Western Front, and reveals how the experience was about more than front line combat for these men. (First edition published by Palgrave Macmillan in 1999. The new edition (2014) contains a foreword by Mark Tully.)

1. A Muslim officer to his brother (Central India)

[Urdu]
December 1914
France

What better occasion can I find than this to prove the loyalty of my family to the British Government? Turkey, it is true, is a Muslim power, but what has it to do with us? Turkey is nothing at all to us. The men of France are beyond measure good and honourable and kind. By God, my brother, they are gentlemen to the backbone! Their manners and morals are in absolute accord with our ideas. In war they are as one with us and with the English. Our noble King knows the quality and the worth of his subjects and his Rajas alike. I give you the truth of the matter. The flag of victory will be in the hands of our British Government. Be not at all distressed. Without death there is no victory, but I am alive and very well, and I tell you truly that I will return alive to India.

2. A Garrison Gunner (Sikh) to a relative (France)

[Gurmukhi]
3rd December 1914
China

The English have suffered severely. Nothing is put into the news, but we know a good deal from day to day. The German ship Emden has sunk forty English ships near this land, and is sinking all the seventy English ships of war. She has not been much damaged although she gets little help.1 The English have eight kings helping them, the Germans three. We hear that our king has been taken prisoner. Germany said that if she were paid a lakh of rupees by five o’clock on the first of the month, she would release the king. The money was paid, but Germany refuses to let him go. I have written only a little, but there is much more for you to think of.

3. An unknown writer to a Jemadar (34th Sikh Pioneers, France)

[Urdu]
[early January 1915?]
Gobind Garh
Punjab

I was distressed to hear that you had been wounded. But God will have pity. Keep your thoughts fixed on the Almighty and show your loyalty to the Government and to King George V. It is every man’s duty to fulfil his obligations towards God, by rendering the dues of loyalty to his King. If in rendering the dues of loyalty he must yield his life, let him be ready to make even that sacrifice. It is acceptable in the sight of God, that a man pay the due of loyalty to his King. God grant you life and happiness. Those heroes who have added lustre to the service of their country and King, let them offer this prayer before God, that victory may be the portion of their King, and let them show the whole world how brave the people of India can be. The final prayer of this humble one before God Almighty is this – that God may make bright the heroes of Hindustan in the eyes of the world and with his healing hand may soften the sufferings of the wounded and restore them to health, so that they may go back to the field of battle and render the dues of loyalty to their King of peace, the King of kings, George V, and secure the victory for him.

4. Subedar-Major [Sardar Bahadur Gugan] (6th Jats, 50) to a friend (India)

[Hindi]
[early January 1915?]
Brighton Hospital

We are in England. It is a very fine country. The inhabitants are very amiable and are very kind to us, so much so that our own people could not be as much so. The food, the clothes and the buildings are very fine. Everything is such as one would not see even in a dream. One should regard it as fairyland. The heart cannot be satiated with seeing the sights, for there is no other place like this in the world. It is as if one were in the next world. It cannot be described. A motor car comes to take us out. The King and Queen talked with us for a long time. I have never been so happy in my life as I am here.

5. A Pathan to a friend in the 57th Rifles (France)

[Urdu]
13th January 1915
40th Rifles
Hong Kong

Return this letter signed and with your thumb impression on it, on the very letter itself. Of the dead say ‘so and so sends you greeting’ and of the wounded say ‘greetings from so and so’.Indian Voices of the Great War 2014 edition