‘Our school memorial contains the names of 600 former pupils; it’s easy to justify teaching the Great War’

For Chris Mackay and his school the First World War has a large local significance. By using stories from soldiers who once attended The Glasgow High School, he forged a connection between past events and his current class.

Chris Mackay

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As a teacher I am always aware of the importance of being able to explain the choice of topic in a classroom. I have always found it rather easy to justify the Great War. It affected the nation, it affected the local area and it affected the majority of families, including my own.  

You don’t need to look too hard to see its effects. The most obvious of these are seen in the numerous war memorials which are found in every area. 100 years on we can no longer speak to those who fought in the trenches. Yet we can access so many rich resources that allow us to find out a great deal about the individuals whose names are carved on the memorials.

I see the First World War as providing opportunities for learning which can be intensely rewarding and very personal. I work in the High School of Glasgow. Its War memorial contains the names of 600 former pupils who lost their lives in both world wars. We also have a book of Service and Remembrance which was created in 1921 and contain the biographical details of the fallen.

Find personal stories

Along with resources provided by the Common Wealth Graves Commission (CWGC), websites such as Scotland’s People and Regimental Museums, we can uncover a great deal about each of the casualties.

Some died in accidents such as the Quintinshill Train Disaster in 1915, others from disease (one of the FPs was 16 when he died from dysentery on his way to Gallipoli). Many others in battle –seventeen FPs died on July 1st 1916.

Each of these stories are important in their own way. They can be used to stimulate lessons on medicine during the war or boy soldiers. I tend to use them as part of a puzzle. What happened to a particular pupil? Extracts from the book of Remembrance are provided to each pupil. I vet these to ensure they will able to pursue a line of research.

Use of the CWGC website and also other websites such as The Long Long Trail can help provide context about their death. Quite often it helps encourage the pupil to realise the limitations of the original information. Not all the details of what may have happened would have been available to those writing about the fallen 100 years ago. Dates of death and the spelling of surnames can vary considerably. This can provoke discussion and demonstrates the pitfalls of research.

Retelling local history

This year my school was fortunate enough to work with 14-18 NOW. Each pupil was able to produce a short film about their own soldier. This encouraged their focus on the individual and also brought to the surface the creative talents of many of the pupils.

At the heart of the project though was the ability to inform others about what they had learned.  It is this I see as important as it creates a connection between the memorial and the pupil. I would like to think that this activity may actually help reinforce the words of Lord Byron when he wrote:

“For these are deeds that should not pass away

And names that must not wither.”

Chris Mackay is the principal teacher of history at The High School of Glasgow, and president of The Scottish Association of Teachers of History