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Reality of war for Old Boys

Chris Fautley describes how one school brought history close to home

In the library at The Portsmouth Grammar School a memorial records the names of 128 Old Boys who lost their lives in the Great War. Now, 82 years after the war's end, it is the focal point of a history project in which the lives of those who fell are being researched by Year 9 students.

The idea, in which each student is assigned one Old Boy, is the brainchild of head of history Simon Lemieux. "There is something particularly poignant and personal about studying an individual Old Boy," he says, adding that it offers students the opportunity to pursue their own independent research. He does not expect them to produce a detailed biography, but rather a two-page precis (all to be put on CD-Rom) to a clear-cut format: photograph, (if available), family, school and service career, action in which death occurred and so on.

To set students on the right track an aide memoire, including potential reference sources, was drawn up with the help of Sue Buxton, a parent and military historian specialising in the First World War. "When we started," she says, "I explained that it was something akin to a murder enquiry. We had the general motive. We had the manner of death."

Only the detail was missing which, once researched, should be considered with great care, warns Ms Buxton. The lines between fact, interpretation, supposition and plain wishful thinking are fine. She cites letters of condolence as usually "downright inaccurate".

The idea, says Simon Lemieux, fits neatly into key stage 3 "The Modern World", although he emphasises that work will not be formally assessed. To do so, he feels, would be invidious and potentially a poor reflection of how much work a student has put in - especially if information is scarce.

The project was launched with each student visiting the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website. Described by Mr Lemieux as "excellent - the place to start", it frequently includes details of how, when and where the person died, where they were buried, their age, and their parents' names. But it is not necessarily plain sailing. One student, armed merely with the name P King, found that the site generated 123 individuals of that name. Ms Buxton stepped into her role as project trouble-shooter, to whom students can turn for guidance during lunch time "surgeries".

"If they have a problem I cannot solve immediately, I will start digging," she says, adding that even the tiniest morsel of information is a great motivator. The King dilemma was resolved by trawling through old copies of the school magazine. These, with class lists, school photographs and admissions registers, hve allowed academic backgrounds to be researched. Additionally, some students have referenced local newspaper archives and the County Records Office, and met descendants of Old Boys. Later this year, there will be a school visit to the Somme battlefields.

With only two lessons assigned to the project, most work has been undertaken in students' own time. Students say they have thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of what Mr Lemieux calls "chalkface historical research with all the joys and frustrations that go with it". (He sounds not a little pleased that many parents have taken the idea on board, accompanying children to regimental museums and even the Public Records Office.) Nevertheless, it is not a project that will be repeated. "Once the research is done, that's it," says Mr Lemieux. "The challenge will be to find other ways of stimulating pupils with original research." The Second World War is therefore a certain candidate.

That students have been fired-up to spend so much of their free time on the idea is proof enough of its success. In Ms Buxton's opinion it has enabled them to see that history is not simply about regurgitating textbooks and writing down dates. And the idea need not be restricted to schools with a long history, she points out. A local war memorial and perhaps an article in the local newspaper to arouse public interest are all that is required.

The concept's great appeal is in never quite knowing what might be unearthed. One Portsmouth student discovered that Arthur Conan Doyle's brother was a pupil; Mr Lemieux confesses to being surprised at the variety of regiments and services in which people from a famous naval city served; and they have even spotted errors in official records - the Commonwealth War Graves Commission had merged into one file information about two brothers with similar initials. Who says history cannot be rewritten?

* In 1903, as a 15-year-old pupil, Arthur Charles Langdon attained fifth place in mathematics in the middle third year. He was 19th out of 29 in English. When he left school he was offered a job in the family engineering business. He died, aged 30, on October 27, 1918, days before the war's end. A 2nd Lieutenant in the Hampshire Regiment, he was leading his platoon across country to attack a machine-gun emplacement when he was shot in both legs. He was dragged to a local farmhouse where he later died of shock and loss of blood. His grave is near Brussels.

* If your school is considering a similar project, Simon Lemieux would be pleased to hear from you: e-mail him at * Commonwealth War Graves Commission: l Regimental Museums:

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