War poet leaves 'sweet and right' legacy

6th November 2009 at 00:00
An ailing soldier sent to Edinburgh to convalesce spent less than a month working at a local school - yet this leading figure of the Great War has become an inspiration to pupils in the same classrooms

It is a little-known footnote in the life of the most famous of war poets: in 1917, Wilfred Owen taught at Tynecastle High in Edinburgh.

Owen was recovering from shellshock at Craiglockhart War Hospital when a forward-thinking doctor, Arthur Brock, sent him to teach English literature as part of his recuperation. Although he spent only three weeks at the school, it left a mark on the young soldier.

Just before Christmas that year, he used a few precious days' leave to revisit the school before returning to the Front. In one classroom he saw a blackboard on which an English teacher, Mrs Fullerton, had written his army address. The pupils had been making Christmas cards for him. It was to be his last Christmas. Owen died in 1918, a week before hostilities ended.

Nearly a century later, a chance find at a car boot sale revealed that the school had another poignant connection with the Great War.

The school was only built in 1912, so it had long been assumed that no pupils or staff died in the war. Then the former head of history, Andrew Savage, was told that someone at a feeder primary had discovered a plaque engraved with the message, "To Tynecastle's war dead 1914".

The history department decided to investigate this year. Staff and S4 Standard grade history pupils, who had been studying the First World War, trawled through school log books and checked names against Commonwealth War Graves Commission records.

So far, they have discovered 14 pupils who died on the Front Line, aged 18 to 20. A teacher also fell; Gunner William Stewart Anderson was 33. The investigators discovered two brothers, named Thompson, who survived. They suspect the death toll may be higher, but corroborating evidence is difficult to find.

The school will shortly be moving into a new home. In the old buildings, there is no visible sign of Owen's tenure, let alone reminders of the teacher and pupils who died.

After the new premises open in January, the head of history, Neil McLennan, hopes there will be a memorial to all the school's war dead. If it gets off the ground, he envisages a grand cross-curricular project which will bring the art and technical departments on board.

While some knew of the poet's time at the school, it is only recently that staff and pupils have started to appreciate the depth of affection he held for Tynecastle High.

Investigations into Owen's time in Edinburgh showed he had a "very close relationship with the kids". Mr McLennan says he "encapsulated A Curriculum for Excellence a century before it was written" with his determination to escape the restrictions of the classroom, taking pupils to city landmarks that had inspired Robert Louis Stevenson.

His fondness for the school was made clear in letters to his mother. They have also persuaded Mr McLennan that Tynecastle High was an influence on one of Owen's most famous poems. "I'm convinced `Anthem for Doomed Youth' was inspired by seeing the children whose fathers and brothers had fallen, their loss of innocence," he says.

Research has also shown how expertise throughout the school helped the war effort. Documents reveal that technical teachers carried out munitions work, while home economics staff trained soldiers in field cooking and domestic chores.

The school's connection to Owen inspired another inter-disciplinary effort last month, for S5 Higher and Intermediate history students. On National Poetry Day, on the theme of Heroes and Heroines, pupils took part in events involving art, history and library staff, as well as the school police link officer Karl Cleghorn and organisations such as PoppyScotland.

PC Cleghorn led a group looking at more recent war poetry. He was a Royal Marine during the Falklands War and fought alongside poet James Love. He asked students to mull over how closely verse from the 1982 conflict reflected experience on the ground.

Soldiers from the Royal Regiment of Scotland, with workers from the PoppyScotland charity, discussed their experiences of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and contemporary war poems. Pupils compared warfare from 1914- 1918 with that of today, and how both are reflected in poetry.

Owen was never far from pupils' thoughts. They turned his poem, "Dulce et Decorum Est", into an abstract piece of art that explored both the horrors of war and the heroism that can emerge in times of conflict. Another group used wordle.net - a website which creates artful "word clouds" from text - to explore meaning behind the poetry of Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg and others.

Owen's time at the school could have been left as a historical quirk, a surprising anecdote to trot out when showing visitors around the school. Instead, the chance encounter is collapsing the generational divide between a remote black-and-white war and 21st-century teenagers.

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