How I teach - Honour those who gave everything

7th November 2014 at 00:00
When pupils are `immune to tragedy', give them a personal connection to the Great War

We live in an age where senseless tragedy seems to be all around us. Whether it's reporting acts of terrorism in the Middle East, plane crashes in Eastern Europe, terrorist attacks in Nigeria or school shootings in the US, the 24-hour news cycle means that children today are increasingly exposed to death and destruction. And as films, television and video games become more extreme, and inappropriate content becomes easier to access online, the line between fact and fiction, between real and imagined violence, is blurring.

With that in mind, how can teachers convey the horror of the First World War? How can they communicate the scale of the conflict without trivialising or sensationalising it? It's hardly surprising that Crawford McInally-Kier, a student at Hutchesons' Grammar School in Glasgow, says it is easy for young people to "become inured to violence and death and almost immune to tragedy".

Speaking in a video for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), Crawford says he has always understood why we have Remembrance Day to mark the contribution made by soldiers during the First World War and later conflicts: "They sacrificed their lives so that we could enjoy the democracy and freedom that we now take for granted."

However, he explains that the annual event "never touched me emotionally - it's too distant".

This attitude is understandable. The last veteran of the war died in 2012, so children don't have immediate access to first-hand accounts of the conflict, only recorded interviews and half-remembered family tales. And modern warfare is far removed from the trenches and mud of the Western Front.

So how can teachers create a sense of the personal, building the emotional connection that seems to be missing from contemporary Remembrance Day rituals?

Scale of the sacrifice

One way is to organise a trip to one of the many battlefield sites on the Continent. This worked for Crawford, who says he was able to grasp the "scale and sacrifice" of the First World War in a way that he hadn't before visiting Ypres in Belgium. His great-great-grandfather's name is one of almost 55,000 etched into the Menin Gate, a war memorial for soldiers from the British Empire whose bodies were never found (pictured above).

Remembrance Day

Back on UK soil, in the Tower of London's Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red project, a ceramic poppy is being planted for every Commonwealth casualty of the First World War. Between the centenary of the beginning of the war on 28 July and Remembrance Day next week, 888,246 ceramic poppies will have been planted in the moat at the Tower by volunteers. Each day at sunset, the names of 180 Commonwealth troops killed during the war are read out.

If visiting the Tower is not an option, there are other possibilities to explore. Find the nearest war memorial to your school and get pupils to research the names displayed there. The War Memorials Trust can help with lesson plans dedicated to memorials and remembrance, and the CWGC is an invaluable resource for finding records of local casualties.

However you do it, ensuring that remembrance is marked with an emotional connection to personal stories rather than a ceremony by rote is important - perhaps more so than ever as we commemorate the centenary of the First World War. After all, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

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