Silent Witnesses – Review of the First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme

“I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon Earth through the years to come, than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war”

King George V at Tyne Cot Cemetery in 1922

 

Recently, I had the privilege of accompanying one of the centenary battlefield tours to the British sites of Western Front. I have always found the First World War fascinating. I spent much of my undergraduate degree focusing on the diplomatic intrigue of the pre-war period. Prior to becoming a teacher, I also spent the best part of a year guiding visitors around the battlefields of the Ypres Salient and the Somme. Therefore, I was thrilled to accompany six of my pupils on the centenary programme in October 2015 and March 2016.

 I cannot recommend the programme highly enough. The meticulous planning enabled our group to visit places which were pertinent to our school communities, while also retaining sites which illustrated the bigger picture of the conflict. Every school in England is entitled to send two students and one teacher. Even if you already organise an annual tour, I would really suggest signing up to the FWWBTP. It will give you some really great insights, particularly as they are always led by experienced members of the Guild of Battlefield Guides.

 Battlefields are sacred places, no matter when the battles were fought. They are often places where human history has changed course. Naturally they are also places where the dead lie, which is reason enough for us to stop and reflect. Evidently, British battles such as Agincourt, Waterloo, Ypres and the Somme all had huge military and strategic significance. More interestingly however, despite being precisely 501 years apart all these pivotal battles occurred within a geographical radius of approximately 120 miles. This incidental fact of geography exposes the importance of Northern France and the Low Countries in the thread of British foreign policy for over half a century. It is the political significance of these battlefields which fascinates me. Militarily, the first battle of the Somme (July-November 1916) was initially a catastrophic failure which later bore fruit in terms of lessons learnt and new tactics. However it was the social consequences at home and the realisation that five centuries of light touch British intervention and splendid isolation had been rudely interrupted by the heartbreakingly morbid harvest of over 60,000 casualties on the 1st July alone.

 Our visit to the Sheffield Memorial Park was a particularly poignant way to illustrate some of those acutely personal stories and connections. We were accompanied by a number of northern English schools, who I am sure would have appreciated the focus on the pals battalions of the northern cities, such as Manchester, Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield. One of my favourite memorials is the purposefully half-built Accrington Pals memorial, made from the familiar Lancashire red-brick which I was so accustomed to when I was growing up in Manchester. We then proceeded to High Wood where we visited the London Cemetery, which would have resonated with the pupils who I was accompanying.

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 My favourite image of the Sheffield Memorial Park. The British front line on 1st July 1916 is just where the trees are on the left. In the distance you can just make out two additional cemeteries, crowned by the simplicity of Herbet Baker’s Cross of Sacrifice.

The use of enquiry questions was also a valuable way the tour enabled pupils to focus their learning on the key aspects of the war. I often find that enquiry questions are wonderful ways of providing focus on a historical topic; however I also find that enquiries can often create tunnel-vision with our pupils. The tour does a really great job of keeping focus on some key questions whilst also allowing that freedom to explore other aspects of the conflict which may not be directly relevant to the enquiry question that day. Every aspect of the tour was always focused on an objective, theme or question keeping the pupils thinking, guessing and learning. The use of artefacts and the expertise of an accompanying member of the armed forces also provided a unique insight into life on the western front.

 There is no doubt that the tours will be remembered by my pupils for the rest of their lives. Two of our pupils were selected to lay a wreath on the Menin Gate memorial to the missing of the Ypres Salient, which I know affected them deeply. However, I do have a number of suggestions which I think would make the tours even more effective as a national vehicle for commemoration, academic study and remembrance.

 Firstly, teacher CPD beforehand should ideally be more knowledge focused. This would ensure that when we are working with pupils on the battlefields we are able to provide the best possible support for them. A detailed pre-reading on the key sites of the war and the sites to be visited would enable teachers to think creatively about how to use the sites effectively. Secondly, I would ensure that far more work is given to allowing the pupils to explore the causes of the conflict and Britain’s role in the pre-war conflagration which engulfed the continent in July 1914. Obviously this has implications for KS3 curriculum design, but I think the tour could also address this in the tour preamble at Kingswood, or even on the coach over to France and Belgium.

 Often pupils have entrenched (excuse the pun) images of the Great War, which circulate around trench warfare, ‘butcher’ Haig, poppies and remembrance. Interestingly, I would also go as far to suggest that this remains the image of the Great War for many of the adult population. The July crisis of 1914 is one aspect of the conflict which has been hugely oversimplified. The overused MAIN (militarism, alliances, imperialism and nationalism), and the assassination still provide the bread and butter of teaching for the causes of the First World War.

Christopher Clark’s brilliant focus on the complexities of Serbian and Austrian politics shed much needed light onto the Balkan tinder-box which triggered the conflict. I have heard that some schools are trying their best to incorporate this scholarship into their curriculums. Crucially however, the underlying motivations for Britain entering the conflict are also ignored. Britain’s place in the world and imperial agreements with France and Russia are often replaced by the crude simplicity of ‘plucky little Belgium’. Considering one of the key themes of the tour and of the whole conflict is remembrance, it would surely be a good use of time to reflect on why Britain chose to declare war on Germany in 1914. That would hopefully clear up some of the ambiguity which is certainly not present when we remember the Second World War, which tends to be conveyed in a remarkably more Manichean way.

One contemporary of the Great War, writing about the creation of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission suggested that the Western Front should be converted into a ‘Via Sacra’ – a continuous line of memorials which would bear witness to the destruction of war. Winston Churchill famously wanted the whole city of Ypres to be kept in its decrepit state as a permanent British war memorial. The creation of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission by Sir Fabian Ware was a truly remarkable convalescence of remembrance, sacrifice, and imperial and religious diversity and unity. However, it is up to the next generation of young people to ensure the First World War is remembered. I am always humbled by the way the Commonwealth countries send coaches of pilgrims to visit their significant sites (Pozieres Ridge, Gallipolli, Delville Wood to name but a few). I am always impressed by the Canadian scheme which funds a number of passionate students to guide visitors around the Newfoundland Memorial Park and Vimy Ridge. Although there are certainly some issues with giving each site over to a particular nation (often the contribution of earlier regiments or nations are forgotten), I find the Canadian scheme is a superb way of keeping the memory of the conflict alive for future generations. The centenary battlefields programme with its Legacy 110 project is doing likewise in the UK. There are some fantastic projects and we hope to create ours on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.

A final thought – with the centenary ending in two years time, it would be a magnificent idea for the government to endow a similar scheme as the Canadians did. Thiepval would seem the obvious choice, guiding visitors around the battlefield where one age passed and another began – allowing young people to pass on the torch of remembrance from their generation to the next.

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