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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.

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

The front-line funnies: cartoons and comic strips in the First World War

In this blog post, Matt Shinn looks into a major research project by Jane Chapman that is telling the story of the two World Wars through an unlikely, but important, and up to now, largely overlooked medium.

Two bristle-haired Tommies are sitting in a shell hole, while explosions fill the sky above them. We don’t know exactly what has just passed between them, but one turns to the other and says ‘Well, if you knows of a better ‘ole, go to it.’

The cartoon, featuring the anti-hero Old Bill, was by the British humourist Bruce Bairnsfather. It was to become the most famous cartoon of the First World War. And work of its kind can give us an at-a-glance appreciation of what people at the time of the Great War were thinking. If it’s a comic strip that will also provide a sense of story that is a valuable record, according to Jane Chapman, Professor of Communications at Lincoln University.

Hark! Hark! The Dogs do Bark. Artist unknown. Published by G.W. Bacon 1914
Hark! Hark! The Dogs do Bark. Artist unknown. Published by G.W. Bacon 1914

The AHRC-supported project that Jane Chapman has been working on, Comics and World Wars: a Cultural Record, began with the idea that comics were an important piece of popular culture that had been overlooked by historians. ‘Many academics have been interested in the mainstream press only,’ she says. ‘And within newspapers, they’ve tended to overlook the apparently marginal things – the cartoons and the adverts, both of which can tell you a lot.’ The project is intended to bring back into public understanding the heritage of comics and cartoons produced at the time of the First World War, and to shed light on the attitudes that they demonstrate. And in some cases, to recuperate much of this material that has been forgotten – it’s mouldering away in collections, and it’s not usually been written about.

“The project is intended to bring back into public understanding the heritage of comics and cartoons produced at the time of the First World War”

Vulgar caricatures

The graphic art produced during the First World War is of many different kinds. An exhibition at the Cartoon Museum, which the AHRC has supported as part of the Comics and World Wars project, brings together over 300 images, many on loan from the Cambridge University Library War Reserve collection, the biggest store of war-related ephemera in the world. They range from humorous cartoons from newspapers and magazines, to cigarette cards and cartoon maps, and colourful comic postcards by the likes of William Heath Robinson and Donald McGill (who would go on to become the ‘king of the saucy seaside postcard’).

Fifth Gloucester Gazette, March 1918. Syndics of the University of Cambridge
Fifth Gloucester Gazette, March 1918. Syndics of the University of Cambridge

Then there are the trench publications that were produced by serving soldiers for their own entertainment, some of which featured cartoons. The ‘Comics and the World Wars’ research project has found 800 editions, with some 200-odd examples of multi-panel cartoons. Bruce Bairnsfather himself started out drawing cartoons for soldiers’ publications, and his jokey style  was copied by others as the grumbling but steadfast Old Bill became the face of the long-suffering Tommy in the trenches, and hugely popular among the men at the front. Bairnsfather’s work was criticised in Parliament as ‘vulgar caricatures of our heroes’, but the Old Bill cartoons were reproduced on plates and cards, and even inspired stage shows and films.

He looks smarter in his Khaki - but I love him best in this. Donald McGill c. 1916
He looks smarter in his Khaki – but I love him best in this. Donald McGill c. 1916

The work in the Cartoon Museum exhibition – Never Again! World War I in Cartoon and Comic Art – also covers a huge range of subjects, with depictions of life in the trenches, themes from popular songs, and air raids. Women’s war work, suffragettes and conscientious objectors all featured frequently in cartoons and comic strips of the time. And as Jane Chapman says, around the time of the First World War cartoons and comic strips weren’t always conservative in their underlying message: political organisations – including trade unions and suffrage groups – also used them to try to bring about change. ‘The Labour movement for example used the cartoon image of the gullible worker, forever being taken in by the system, and a victim of capitalism and recruitment propaganda.’

 “Women’s war work, suffragettes and conscientious objectors all featured frequently in cartoons and comic strips of the time”

Then there are the ‘hate cartoons’ that demonise the Germans, often making great play of the German spiked helmet, and showing the Hun as a spider, gorilla or monster. The Kaiser was always a popular subject – ‘how ugly, incompetent, feeble or Satanic do you want to make him?’ But there were still boundaries – one Australian cartoon of a bayoneted Kaiser was turned down for publication. And there are other depictions of the enemy, by the likes of Heath Robinson and Haselden, that acknowledge the humanity that was shared by both sides. ‘The soldiers themselves often portrayed the Germans with a degree of empathy,’ says Jane Chapman, ‘seeing them as just doing their job, as the allies were. The further from home a soldier was, and the longer they had been away, the more mellow their attitude in writing became towards the enemy.’

The serious business of the comic

The First World War marks an important point in the evolution of the comic strip. There had been strips before the war, but they were aimed at children: it was in the Great War that adults began to take an interest in the strip format. And cartoons became a hugely important publication medium during the conflict, as they weren’t subjected to the same kinds of censorship as print. At the same time, the adult market for cartoons was developing because of the need for propaganda, and simple forms of communication and entertainment. The recognisable idiom of the comic strip, including many of its conventions (such as speech bubbles), was being formed.

Young man, I hope you came by all those things honestly? Donald McGill, 1917
Young man, I hope you came by all those things honestly? Donald McGill, 1917

The cartoons from the First World War also give visual form to important aspects of the conflict. Among soldiers themselves, for example, the figure of the anti-hero was very popular, but this could contrast sharply with depictions in the British press of soldiers as heroes, further reinforcing the belief among many at the front that people at home didn’t understand the reality of the war.

“A hundred years after the First World War, cartoons can also provide a means of reaching out to a more general audience, and interesting them in the history of the conflict.”

Finally, a hundred years after the First World War, cartoons can also provide a means of reaching out to a more general audience, and interesting them in the history of the conflict. As Cartoon Museum curator Anita O’Brien puts it, ‘cartoons and comic strips give us a different way of approaching the war, and the feelings that people had about it. We’re like a bridge between the knowledge that academics have and a public who may not be easy to reach: many of the people who come to the Cartoon Museum would not go to other museums. Cartoons and comic strips are a marginal artform – they’re never seen as high art – but they have tendrils that reach out to a lot of aspects of the period. They can introduce subjects visually that people might not initially want to read about: they’re a great way in.’

You can find out further information from the University of Lincoln.

Watch an AHRC film on the project

Comics tap into the real emotions of the world wars

Professor Jane Chapman (University of Lincoln) discusses the war in comics at The Conversation today.

In its new exhibition, the British Library celebrate the subversive history of the comic. As ever, such a complex heritage can hardly be covered in such a show. But it is a symptom of a more widespread movement: comics are starting to be recognised as far more than an ephemeral art form. They provide a rich source of cultural records of the past – a reflection, or projection of political and cultural feeling of the time.

“A few days rest in billets”. Courtesy of Cambridge University Library
“A few days rest in billets”. Courtesy of Cambridge University Library

This alternative cultural history provides particularly rich results in the case of World War I and II, which I have been researching in depth. Millions of people – children and adults – were avidly consuming comics at the time. Internal correspondence from The American Office of War Information (OWI) quotes Advertising Research foundation findings that approximate that 83% of Americans read at least one comic strip daily. And that:

Cartoons, advancing OWI campaigns, are distributed to an average of 1,000 newspapers weekly … Potential viewers are 60,000,000.

In situations of “total war” a range of organisations used comics to communicate with adults, not simply as a means of entertaining children. My research has searched for and recuperated thousands of different publications internationally, aimed at diverse audiences.

The Conversation

This article is by Jane Chapman, and was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.