When the tragedy of war can inspire peace

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.

Use a grave as a starting point. If you are visiting a battlefield, take the time (or ask your tour guide) to locate the grave of a soldier shot at dawn. Discuss with students what kind of person he might have been and consider why the British government felt it necessary to execute such men during the war. If you are unable to visit a battlefield, use the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website to locate suitable images that can be projected on to your whiteboard to prompt discussion.

Read or listen to an extract from Michael Morpurgo's First World War novel Private Peaceful, in which a soldier's refusal to fight plays a key role. A reading of a relevant chapter has been uploaded to TES Connect by BBC School Radio: find it at bit.lymorpurgo-pp

Ask students to research the poet Siegfried Sassoon. He was an officer celebrated for his bravery and awarded the Military Cross, yet later in the war he became a conscientious objector and refused to return to battle. Pupils could investigate why Sassoon made this decision and use their research as a springboard for discussions of cowardice and pacifism.

In 2006, conditional pardons were granted to soldiers shot at dawn during the First World War. Let us hope this is the start of a process that redefines what cowardice means and gets students thinking next time they face a fight. Hopefully they will walk away.

Helen Amass is a former teacher and a writer for TES Connect

What else?

Try TES Connect's collection of teaching materials exploring the First World War.


Find activities and ideas from the Institute of Education's Battlefield Tours Programme.


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