The issue - When the tragedy of war can inspire peace

1st August 2014 at 01:00
Remembering the soldiers executed for `cowardice' can spark fierce debate and bring children's own conflicts into perspective

In Ypres, a battle is taking place. A group of schoolchildren and teachers are gathered around a headstone in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery in Belgium, engaged in a debate that is growing more heated by the second.

Our tour guide, a knowledgeable ex-serviceman with a windbreaker and an impressive moustache, is witnessing one of those tense, emotional moments that occur only when the topic being taught is particularly divisive - or when students really, really care about something.

The grave belongs to a soldier who was shot at dawn under the British Army Act during the First World War. Of the 351 men executed under the act, 306 were sentenced for "military offences" such as cowardice, desertion and "shamefully casting away his weapon in the face of the enemy".

Our tour guide asks how the group might feel if they knew that a soldier shot at dawn was their ancestor.

"It might make me feel ashamed," one student says.

Another quickly replies: "Why would you feel ashamed of that? It's brave."

"Maybe it comes down to gender," their teacher suggests. "A man looks at that grave and sees someone who was a coward. A woman looks at it and sees her son."

The debate rages on. Definitions and opinions of the word "coward" are discussed with a fervour that is surprising among a bunch of 12- to 16-year-olds on a history trip. But the notion of cowardice is as relevant today as it was 100 years ago. The same fear still exists: no one wants to be labelled a coward. And what it means to be a coward is still passionately contested.

Lay down your weapons

Teachers have to contend with children's fear of being branded cowardly every day. It is a fear that escalates arguments and provokes uncharacteristic behaviour. It causes minor scuffles, full-blown fights and even serious incidents outside the school gates that can end in a young person's death.

For many pupils, backing down from an argument is unthinkable. Standing up for yourself and settling your disputes, whether with words or with fists (or worse), is often seen as a way to command respect among peers.

What can teachers do about this? It would be naive to assume that we can eliminate students' need to stand up for themselves when they feel disrespected or insulted, but we can make them aware that it is not always cowardly to walk away from battles. These ideas can be explored in endless ways, including role play, documentary-making and case studies.

This year is the centenary of the start of the First World War, so it is the ideal time to really get children thinking about the complex issues surrounding wartime executions. The following tasks could help them to recalibrate what they consider to be cowardly.

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