Front lines

9th December 2005 at 00:00
To mark the 90th anniversary of the Somme, pupils can win a video iPod by writing a mobile message from No Man's Land. Jerome Monahan reports

Next year is the 90th anniversary of the Somme, the battle that represents the moment in the First World War when any remaining hopes about battlefield glory or swift victory finally gave way to the reality of modern slaughter.

On its first day alone (July 1), 20,000 new names were generated for the memorials that would soon be springing up all over Britain in response to the Government's decision in 1916 to halt the repatriation of bodies.

Today, there are more than half a million dead commemorated in stone and brass, on church and school walls, in town centres and village greens across the UK, and now they are to available in a searchable, online form.

"The Lost Generation website is a joint effort between Channel 4 and UK National Inventory of War Memorials," says Dr Alan Borg, a former director general of the Imperial War Museum, home to UKNIWM. "It captures a key part of our larger database of all Britain's 70,000 war memorials dating as far back as the 10th-century Suenoes' Stone, near Forres in Grampian."

As well as being able to search by individual names, area or denomination, the site's greatest boon to teachers is the inputting area where visitors can upload photos, letters and other artefacts associated with individuals.

"In this way we hope to be able to restore something of the personalities of the young men that died in their thousands," says Channel 4's commissioning editor (interactive) Adam Gee. Although most of this material will be available for visitors to see, they will be subject to authentication by the Imperial War Museum, following which legitimate items will gain special "vetted status".

"We have also designed the site so that it immediately establishes the link between the world that young people know today and the images of the First World War," he says. "The banners that run along the top of each page are deliberately anachronistic, showing troops, for example, going over the top against a backdrop of tower blocks or blinded casualties strung out in front of modern office buildings."

The same spirit of incongruity prevails in the first of two schools'

competitions that 4learning is organising to run in parallel with the site's launch and Channel 4's season of First World War programmes. Young people are going to be asked to imagine themselves cut off in No Man's Land, sheltering in a crater with a dead compatriot for company and only enough power in their mobile to punch out a single 160-character text to their family or friends. The prize for the best entry, a video iPod, is suitably modern too.

The second competition, launched last month, is more for teachers, giving them a focus for work they might do in class using the Lost Generation website. The task involves students creating a PowerPoint presentation that shows the impact of the First World War on their community by, for instance, adopting a Tommy or even an entire local memorial and attempting to flesh out the stories and sacrifices that each carved name represents.

In doing so, they will be paralleling the kind of research that underpins the four-part Channel 4 series Not Forgotten, in which Ian Hislop explores a number of fascinating tales behind memorials across Britain: "The programmes are exercises in 'reverse genealogy'. Instead of families investigating their history, in many cases, we've done it for them."

The series demonstrates the rewards of painstaking investigation. Among the sources on screen are the "exhumation files" containing desperate letters complaining about the Government's non-repatriation policy, and Luton police records of a riot there by former servicemen when the major attempted to hold a victory banquet without inviting them.

Ian Hislp was full of praise for the 4Learning website for keeping the memory of that generation alive in the face of indifference. Among those invited to the launch of the programmes and website were sixth-formers recruited to comment on The Somme, a drama documentary of the first day of the campaign, scripted entirely from personal letters and accounts.

"This more personal approach really appealed to me," says Olivia Cox of Tiffins School in Surrey. "I sometimes find all the facts and figures have little impact mainly because of their scale," adds her schoolmate Lily Eastwood. "But seeing and hearing the words of a 14-year-old volunteer there or the horror of another soldier having witnessed the execution of prisoners, really brought the events home to me."

With the website in place, such students will be able to flesh out the anonymous names commemorated across the UK for themselves.


Channel 4's series of First World War programmes, including the The Somme and the four-part Not Forgotten, run until December 12.

* The Lost Generation iPod competition closes on December 31.


* The Lost Generation PowerPoint competition closes on March 31.


* The UK inventory of war memorials

* Database:

* Other resources from 4Learning: ClipBank, First World War and aftermath, archive film clips. f=66Prime=YesshopListRec=30294

* Letters from the Trenches, video f=66Prime=YesshopListRec=24273

* The First Day of The Somme interactive resource:


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