Despite being on opposing sides, the British and German soldiers had more in common than you’d think. New footage of opposition forces sharing a joke or a cigarette helped Caitlin Morrison teach her class about the First World War and helped them challenge their perceptions.
“Ugh Miss, why are we studying this? No one even cares anymore!”
As an English and History teacher, I have heard this complaint countless times. Every time I have to find a way to coax my students into enjoying a topic that they see as irrelevant to their own lives and interests.
After tearing my hair out trying to make teaching the Great War for the eighth year running more interesting (surely the trench foot photographs and first plastic surgery images are gory enough to engage 21st Century teenagers?!), I was able to switch on the brains behind the glazed eyes: with footage that challenged their expectations.
Common ground between enemies
“What do we think British people – in particular, soldiers – would have felt towards the Germans once the war was over?” Disgust, hatred, animosity, anger, vengefulness, resentfulness – all understandable responses given the popular representation of the ‘Hun’ and the British distaste of all things German at the time.
I then showed my students a clip from Peter Jackson’s latest documentary featuring German soldiers laughing, chatting, and swapping uniformed caps while sharing a cigarette with British and French soldiers. My students were silent. One tentative hand went up: “Miss…but…why are they laughing? Weren’t they just trying to kill each other days before this was taken?”
A flurry of questions followed – “But they would’ve possibly killed some of their pals! How could they share a cigarette?”, “Was this like what happened at the Christmas Truce?”, “How come we never hear about this?” Yes. Engaged teenagers. Success!
By using original wartime footage, I was able to challenge my students’ perceptions, and get them to start using those higher order thinking skills we so desire to see in them. Analysing evidence, comparing views, questioning perceptions; all fantastic traits we would hope to foster in our young historians.
Once I’d hooked them with this footage, I challenged them again with an interview with a veteran about how he felt about the soldiers. He stated that if anything they felt pity – they were soldiers just as he and his mates were, but they had the misfortune to lose. The Germans were following orders same as they were.
This opened up another can of worms regarding perception and our understanding of the world. We followed this with a language-based focus on terminology that is used to describe the armistice and end of the war – the definitions they came up with in our carousel task were thoughtful and considered.
They were already thinking more about their responses than usual, which meant once we came to our “Recipe for Reconciliation” task, they were having debates and challenging each other. They were considering the footage they had seen to make informed decisions. Their empathy for these men and the people of Britain at the time had been improved simply by watching and listening to them.
These personal stories helped students really understand then how those soldiers would have felt after the war – “Miss, they were just grateful they survived at all, weren’t they?” Yes, they probably were.