First World War tributes are leaving pupils battle-weary

20th June 2014 at 01:00
Teachers fear centenary `barrage' will put them off, study reveals

The First World War has received so much media coverage that children risk being bored of the subject long before the anniversary of its outbreak, according to a new study.

Many history teachers fear that by the 100th anniversary of Britain's entry into the war on 4 August, students will be fed up of hearing about Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Kaiser Wilhelm II and the horrors of trench warfare.

Academics from the universities of Exeter and Northumbria questioned more than 450 history and English teachers about their experiences of teaching the First World War. Although some saw the extensive media attention given to this year's anniversary as "a blessing", many expressed concerns about the danger of overexposure.

"There was a feeling that the war hasn't even started yet - we haven't even reached 4 August - but already there's been a lot of programming," said Catriona Pennell, one of the researchers. She cited television dramas The Crimson Field and 37 Days, as well as Jeremy Paxman's BBC documentary series Britain's Great War.

"It's not like the D-Day landings - it's not just one day," Dr Pennell added. "We've got four and a half years of this centenary, and you could find a 100th anniversary for every one of those days, if you should so wish."

Ann-Marie Einhaus, who co-authored the study, feared that English teachers might feel the need to focus extensively on First World War poets during the centenary period. "If you give kids a barrage of First World War stuff for five years, at some point they will just shut off," she said.

Earlier this year, education secretary Michael Gove criticised the way the war was taught in schools and complained that television programmes such as Blackadder presented it as futile and a "misbegotten shambles".

These sentiments were echoed by Dr Pennell. "It will be interesting to see if teachers challenge these programmes," she said. The Crimson Field, for example, was set in a battlefield hospital and showed soldiers returning from the trenches wounded, shell-shocked and dying. But, she explained, the survival rate for soldiers in the war was more than 80 per cent.

Part of the problem, Dr Einhaus said, was that English teachers tended to focus on a small selection of war poets. Many of these - such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon - reflected only a very limited perspective.

"The canonical poets happen all to be white, all middle class, all on the Western front," she said. "And then you have to focus on the context of those poets."

Concerns about teachers relying too heavily on a limited set of war poets were also raised earlier this year by Mr Paxman, following a conference looking at how teachers should mark the First World War. "Poetry is part of the problem of how we teach [the war]," he said, adding that the focus of lessons was all on "the pointless sacrifice".

In fact, Dr Pennell said, the conflict was fought in Africa and Asia as well as in the trenches of Europe, and involved many non-white soldiers. "The war is often taught as some kind of moral lesson," she said. "It's being taught with values laden on top of it. It's taught as a tragedy, as something that should be avoided in future. But death on a mass scale is not the only feature of the First World War."

Paula Kitching of the Historical Association noted that the First World War formed part of the national curriculum, so "fatigue or no fatigue, they're going to be teaching it".

She added: "Has it kicked off a bit early? I think everyone would agree, yes. Let's be realistic. Some people are going to have enough. But what we've seen so far is lots of enthusiasm and interest. I think it's a real opportunity to look at what was a very changing conflict. It's a big enough story to carry on throwing up new things. Five years isn't going to be enough, really, to look at it all in depth."

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