How imagination reveals the reality of the Great War

21st March 2014 at 00:00
Stories help take children to the front, says War Horse author

Teachers should use works of fiction and first-hand accounts to teach children about the reality of the First World War because they can "reach places" that history books can't, according to a leading children's author.

Michael Morpurgo, the writer of War Horse, an acclaimed account of trench warfare, said that stories helped to engage children by encouraging them to "feel the reality" of conflict.

Speaking at a conference organised by English private school Wellington College on how teachers should prepare for the centenary of the First World War, Mr Morpurgo said that books, plays and films that were grounded in historical reality were the best to reach children.

He referred to his own book The Best Christmas Present in the World, which tells the story of the 1914 Christmas truce when British and German soldiers suspended fighting and held football matches and exchanged gifts in no-man's-land.

Mr Morpurgo said that events of the time were documented by the soldiers themselves in letters home. "So that story [his novel] came from a document and I hope with fiction I can touch hearts and reach places which history might not be able to reach with many, many children out there who love a story."

He added: "I found as a teacher the best way I could draw the attention of an audience of children was to start with a story which mattered to me.I wasn't trying to push something on them, I wasn't trying to persuade them of something, it was simply me inside the story."

Mr Morpurgo's comments follow fierce debate over the best way to mark the centenary, with England's education secretary Michael Gove earlier this year lambasting "left-wing" academics and the television series Blackadder for depicting the Great War as a "misbegotten shambles".

But despite Mr Gove's views, Andrew Murrison, the Conservative minister for international security strategy and the prime minister's special representative for the commemoration of the War, heaped praise on the series.

"I'm going to let you into a secret, I'm Blackadder's greatest fan," he told the Wellington conference. "I've got the box set, all six DVDs, and I can quote extensively from them.

"In an interesting reversal, the debate around whether Blackadder perpetrates myths prompts us to question the orthodox. Educators are skilled in disentangling fact, fiction and the contestable while engaging people in clever ways, even if that means calling on Sir Tony Robinson's Private Baldrick."

Mr Morpurgo said that first-hand accounts of the Great War were also vital for teachers. "The important thing is that they [the students] have access to the people who were there," he said.

"It's what they said and wrote, whether it was letters home or poetry. If that's the foundation of what we are passing on, and everything else comes from it - the plays, the films, whatever - and we keep the integrity of that, then I think it's fine."

The journalist Ian Hislop encouraged teachers to access the War through the story of The Wipers Times, a newspaper published at the front. The satirical publication - complete with fake adverts for a Red Cross "taxi service" home - provided insights into the minds of some of the men who were fighting, he said.

The story of the paper showed that it was important for the latest generation not to have a "patronising or condescending" attitude to the people of the time, who were all too aware of the absurdity of their situation, he added.

Broadcaster Jeremy Paxman, who has written a book and presented TV programmes about the conflict, also stressed the importance of studying the stories of ordinary people rather than relying too heavily on the War poets.

"It seems to be poetry is part of the problem of how we teach World War I," he said. He added that it was "hard to exaggerate" the importance of the conflict in shaping modern Britain.

The comments come after Birdsong author Sebastian Faulks told TES that teachers needed to "de-historicise" the War and place students at the heart of the horrors of the trenches.

On parade

For more ideas on how to present the First World War to your students, plus podcasts, slide shows and an in-depth article on why we should look again at our assumptions about the conflict, see TES Connect's rich bank of resources.


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