Poet in the firing line

1st March 1996 at 00:00
Reva Klein listens in as Wilfred Owen answers pupils' questions on his poetry and life in the trenches in the First World War. I've seen guys holding their right arm out of the trench for it to get blown off. One guy I saw shot himself in the foot." The soldier relating these images was not out to shock, but to communicate the horrors of the First World War. His account of the privations, the dehumanisation and the desperation of his fellow soldiers to be sent home from the front by any means possible kept his audience enrapt and yet wanting many many answers.

The GCSE English and history students from Kingsbury High School had come to the National Army Museum, next door to Chelsea Hospital, to get a cross-curricular perspective on the First World War. While Andy Robertshaw, education officer of the museum, gave them an account of a soldier's life, based on his own grandfather's wartime experiences, another presentation was taking place at the other end of the museum. There, Wilfred Owen read his poetry, talked about his war experiences and answered questions.

The day-long session, organised by Kingsbury's head of history Michael Long and Kalvinder Chohan of the English department, was designed to give students a more rounded perspective on the First World War than they would get from looking at it solely from historical evidence or from the war poets.

Explains Ms Chohan, "It's important to make these cross-curricular links, for the children to bring in historical evidence into English essays to support what they're saying. And from the history side, it's just as important to bring in empathy to help enliven the subject."

For the occasion, the school commissioned an actor from the live interpretation group Time Travellers, which specialises in presentations in museums and historical houses. Playing the role of the 23-year-old Owen, on temporary medical leave in Britain before returning to the battlefields of France, he answered questions on the development of his poetry by a member of the museum's education staff, talked about his background and read several of his poems. The resonance of words like "I am the enemy you killed, my friend" was particularly acute set against the dialogues he invited with students. To a girl's question "do you hate the enemy?" he replied, "No, how can I? The German soldiers are in the same position as we are. What I hate are the German government and the British government."

The strength of the day was in the planning. The students, mostly from Year 10 but a few eager younger ones who wanted to come too, spent half a day with each "soldier". Andy Robertshaw's presentation focused on the historical context, offering artefacts to handle, including a real grenade, a rifle, a bayonet, a handsaw used for amputations, a tourniquet and a corkscrew instrument that was used to extract shrapnel from wounded soldiers' heads.

For the less faint-hearted, there were uniforms to try on, gas masks and identity tags. And there was Andy's grandfather's handkerchief. His commentary was very firmly rooted in the everyday life of an ordinary Tommy in the trenches. He spared his audience no details about what happens to corned beef in the winter (it freezes and there's nothing to heat it up on) and in the summer, when it comes out likeliquid. But that was comic relief compared to what happened once you were wounded when there was a chronic lack of anaesthetics, or how you could hear the screams of men trapped in shell holes as they slowly drowned. Or how, indeed, you could be with your mate one minute and the next, he would have had his head blown apart. And how you always were aware that the next time, it could be you.

But despite the grim subject matter, the arrangement of information and the presentation of it was lively, designed to stimulate curiosity and discussion. And it did. Students were particularly interested in asking "Wilfred Owen" about his motivation for staying in the army and what went through his head when he was on the front line. It was far from straightforward, his hatred of the war but his insistence on staying on to fight was a way of hastening its end.

For historian Michael Long the crux of the exercise was, in his words, "their gaining an understanding of the human side of the war. The horror and savagery comes across when you have someone telling you about it". The school is no stranger to the National Army Museum, which regularly runs in-service training sessions for history teachers. "This kind of programme wouldn't be possible without the museum," according to Long. Apart from being one of the few museums to offer schoolchildren the opportunity to handle artefacts, it obliged Kingsbury's request - a first for the museum - to have a live interpreter.

This isn't the last that Kingsbury Year 10s will have of the First World War this year, though. Later this month, they troop off at 2am for a day trip to the Somme battlefields. With the soldiers' words in their heads, with the images that they created in their imaginations, it is likely to be a memorable experience.

For more information about the National Army Museum's education programme, telephone 0171 730 0717

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