It would be interesting to know if, one hundred years from today, British Schools will still spend so much time studying the First World War. To some extent modern British culture is considered to have been shaped by the First World War. At least in the public imagination it was a war of stiff upper lips and playing the game, of noble sacrifice gone wrong as warfare changed beyond all recognition to harness the industrial power of nations. Poetry, novels, plays and films have been written; it is a conflict that has stamped itself on the national psyche of the UK in a way that it hasn’t in other countries. The idea of lions led by donkeys and the dangers of unchecked nationalism also weigh heavy on our latter day interpretations.
This week I had the great fortune to go with Year 9 to the First World War battlefields of Northern France and Belgium. We were blessed with both exceptional weather and engaged, interested students. Many of them asked the inevitable questions about the futility and waste of war, after all, who could not be moved standing in front of a pristine war grave for a fifteen year old boy who died under fire? The answers don’t get any easier to find.
As we stood looking at the Menin Gate, bathed in early morning sunlight, I was struck that as teachers we have an obligation to ensure that the First World War does not slip into the mists of time. It was a modern conflict in which the world was forced to understand, for the first time, that targets could be found far from the immediate battlefield. It was perhaps the first mass media war with its own brands of propaganda and fake news. It had unexpected consequences, positive ones, such as votes for women. It was a crucible of nations with Canada, Australia and New Zealand asserting their independence from Britain, the old order was questioned. But at what price? Carnage, sorrow, dispossession. Without World War 1 the Middle East situation would be different indeed. These are not easy concepts for young minds but it is important that we challenge our pupils to consider the views they need to develop, to compel them engage with “difficult” subjects. In doing so we have to, as parents or as teachers, allow them to disagree from time to time.
I have written before that we are developing a new generation of leaders at this school. Our young people will, I am sure, go on to make a massive contribution to their communities (wherever they may be) and it is important that they are ready to apply the lessons of the past to their futures and the decisions that are made for them and on their behalf.
We are right to remember and right to commemorate. All who had the opportunity to hear Georgie Green’s poem in Notre Dame on Sunday cannot help but consider the cost of conflict and those who heard Nicholas Lo’s stirring playing have been given pause for thought. I hope that 100 years from now we are still commemorating Alex’s great, great grandfather and his comrades who gave so much.