Families are a rich source of eye witness accounts. Gerald Haigh visits a school that is turning these into a growing IT archive
The words "What did you do in the War daddy?" first appeared on a Great War recruiting poster. Whoever thought of it showed remarkable prescience in realising not only that the question would become part of the language, but that a world was emerging in which countless thousands of ordinary people really would hold in their hearts all manner of proud and astonishing tales.
So, when Simon Landy of Heart of England School in Solihull asked his grandfather, 81-year-old Bazyli Bareza, about his war experience, he heard the story of a Polish farm worker sent to Siberia by the Russians in 1941; then made to build bridges for the Russian Army; then captured by the Germans and set to work on the French coastal defences as a slave labourer; then liberated on D-Day and sent back to Europe as a soldier with the Polish division of the British Army; and finally demobbed to a new life as a chef in Britain.
And, to the school's astonishment, the same question posed by Laura Hayes to her great uncle Edgar Prestwood produced a set of hitherto unknown photographs of the gruesome execution of Mussolini and Clara Petacci. (These are now kept at the local bank when they are not being used in school.) That part of the history curriculum which looks at the period of the Second World War seems to lend itself to the gathering of such stories, and the collecting together of treasured documents and artefacts. So much so, that the problem is not how to find the personal accounts, but how to handle and store them in such a way that they have lasting value to a large number of users. One answer, currently being developed at the school, is to use information technology to file the interview material in a way that will provide easier access.
Heart of England pupils, explains history teacher Warwick Webster, have been interviewing local people for a long time as part of the Year 9 topic on the Era of the Second World War: "We've been collecting these accounts since the mid-Eighties, with a view to using them as a primary source."
As a result, the department has developed a well tried approach. There are written guidelines covering the nuts and bolts of interview techniques. Pupils use either tape (audio or video) or a notebook, and they go over their notes with a teacher, identifying points which might be pursued further. Then those whose interviewees have given related information - on evacuation, perhaps, or on the Coventry Blitz - are grouped together for further research. The interview material is used to illuminate the general accounts provided by secondary sources. "The interview acts as a starting point for investigation, " says Mr Webster.
Importantly, pupils find the work interesting and purposeful and, as Mr Webster explains, "they are often stunned by the discovery that somebody in the family was involved in world events".
Family relationships can be affected too: "They find that these people who they thought were boring and crusty actually saw more than could possibly be imagined." Being interviewed is also good for the interviewees. Edgar Prestwood told me of his feelings when he knew that his contribution was so valued: "I thought nobody was bothered and I'm pleased that they are. It's good for the children to know." Simon Landy says his grandfather felt the same way. "He enjoys telling his stories and he was chuffed that other people were going to use them."
As the collection grew - there were accounts of the Blitz, of home guard work, of being prisoners, of life in the women's armed forces - Mr Webster decided, with the help of the IT department, to start loading the interview material, much of it already on disc, on to a database. (The software being used is Microsoft Access.) The point of doing this is that it will become possible to find individual interviews through a number of routes - type in "childhood", for example, and you will be offered a list of childhood memories. The value of the hundreds of accounts the school now holds will be instantly increased. The whole project is a not only a valuable exercise in the development of historical skills, but also extends into word processing and other aspects of IT, as well as providing practice in oral and written language.
The next step, which the school is actively exploring, may be to make the archive available on the Internet. If other schools followed suit a growing national resource could be created. Warwick Webster would like to hear from other teachers who are interested in this, or who would just like to discuss ways of expanding the archive and making it more generally available.
* Warwick Webster, Heart of England School, Gipsy Lane, Balsall Common, Coventry CV7 7FW. Tel: 01676 535222