I’ve just returned from a trip to Ypres with a small group of Y9 pupils. I wonder if anyone has found recently that it has become a bit more difficult getting pupils to come on trips out? I suppose until about a year ago I never really had any problem filling a coach to go on any day out or, for that matter, overnight or longer visits. Well, over the last academic year I’ve begun to notice that it’s getting more and more tricky to fill the number of places needed to keep the overall cost of the activity at a reasonable level. This year despite our usual ‘push’ we attracted only 26 pupils to take part in what I consider to be a really worthwhile investigation into the history of the Great War.
Maybe there are just so many different extra curricular activities on offer that the ‘market’ is now too crowded or perhaps the financial downturn is finally starting to force parents to think much more carefully about what to spend their hard earned cash on. Whatever the real explanation it means that now more than ever I need to be clear about the justification for taking time out of the school day and ensuring that what is on offer represents good value for money. Of course we always ensure that parents are invited to attend an evening meeting where they can get a more detailed picture of their son’s or daughter’s trip. But sometimes the content can be a little heavy on the admin and light on the educational justification or indeed the interesting details that their children are going to enjoy; result, parents are understandably puzzled and wonder if they’ve spent their hard earned cash wisely when on return from their trip little Henry or Henrietta, when asked what they’ve done, reply that the burger and chips on the ferry were very nice! So it’s probably wise to make sure that parents get a very detailed picture of exactly how the trip enriches the curriculum and why it is worth investing in.
My presentations to parents now are structured under four headings: The Narrative, Local Connections, Relevance, Challenge.
Perhaps Henry/Henrietta mention the burger and chips because they are a bit confused by what they have been studying. Sometimes I’m sure we teachers want to fit so much into our visits that we can loose sight of the fact that the best way to keep children engaged is by providing an interesting and clear story. It is important not to over simplify complex historical events but without a strong, clear narrative thread holding everything together children can really flounder and become very confused. I’ve found this to be particularly true when studying the First World War. So the technique is to build the picture bit by bit and link each element to a strong visual source. The story of Ypres provides an excellent framework on which to construct a narrative; medieval wealth based on the cloth trade, besieged many times over the centuries, controlling access to the Channel Ports, fought over ferociously for four years, it really is a treasure.
Selection of locations that offer opportunities to tell a tale is the key to success. Compare pictures of the Lille and Menin Gates in 1914 with photos of the same locations in 1919 and later as the Memorial was constructed. Stand on the corner of the Grote Markt just down from the British Grenadier Bookshop and look out at the Cloth Hall and the spire of St Martins. Armed with photos of the same view in 1917/18 the pupils can immediately see what the level of destruction was like.
The ebb and flow of the battles around Ypres make it tricky sometimes to see the wood for the trees but if you pick some key locations connected with each of the battles for Ypres: Langemark (1914/1915), Vancouver Corner, Essex Farm and Hooge (1915), Tyne Cot (1917/1918) you can quite easily make a complex topic manageable. All the better if you can weave in some sub-plots from local Regiments, individuals or particular themes to do with how battles were fought. With the narrative framework in place the task becomes much easier. Keep it simple. Keep it strong and keep it clear.
Local studies have always been an excellent way of keeping pupils motivated and a good story is enhanced when pupils can relate it to their local area. The conversations both inside and outside the classroom become much more passionate when the discussion is about something or someone from their home area and family connections with historic events are often the best way of keeping interest levels high.
With some research it is possible to make these local connections for pupils. Many young men from Suffolk and Norfolk served their country with distinction during the Great War and sadly many did not return to their families. For our most recent trip to Flanders I was able to find details of Bandsman Arthur Betts died just before the 2nd Battle of Ypres in 1915 and who is buried in Lille Gate, Ramparts Cemetery. His parents lived close to South Lopham near Diss. In previous years on longer trips we’ve always spoken about the Pals Battalion’s fate on 1st July 1916 but have also uncovered a local link. In the latter stages of the Somme campaign the 2nd Bn The Suffolk Regiment suffered very heavy losses and their dead were buried in battlefield cemeteries in front of Serre at the north of the area. These kind of local connections have a profound affect on the pupils.
Often pupils and parents will have researched their own family history and are keen to find their relatives when possible. This is an absolute must; if there is any chance at all of identifying a pupil’s relative and locating their grave or name on memorials to the missing then its worth the effort to make that visit. On our most recent visit two pupils found the names of relatives on the Menin Gate. The effect on the individuals concerned was obvious but it was also interesting to see how the other pupils were just as interested and moved by this experience. Fifty-four thousand names carved on a memorial can be bewildering but never fail to get pupils thinking about the cost of war. Finding the name of one relative of one member of the group really hits home.
Demonstrating the relevance of a trip to the National Curriculum is not too difficult. But making a trip relevant to a fourteen year old from a world so very different to the one being investigated is sometimes more problematic. The role of ’empathy’ in the history classroom has sometimes received a bad press and it is true that the lives of youngsters today are very different to those of previous generations. However if you want to get pupils interested in a topic showing the experiences of people their own age is pretty much guaranteed to do the trick.
A few years ago the CWGC produced an excellent free CDRoM resource as part of its annual Remembrance Day package. It was called called ‘One Boy’ and it told the story of Horace Iles a 16 year old soldier who died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. I have yet to show this to a group and not have them ‘get it’. If you get the opportunity you can also visit his grave in Serre Road Cemetery No. 1 (I.E.39). The Ypres Salient also has its own boy soldiers to talk about. The story of Rfn Valentine Strudwick (Essex Farm Cemetery I.U.8) who died one month short of his sixteenth birthday always draws a thoughtful response. It also used to be the case that this story of underage soldiers could be developed with reference to Pte John Condon (Poelcapelle British Cemetery L VI.F.8) who for many years was believed, at the age of fourteen, to be the youngest soldier to die in the war. Recent research however has led to some controversy in relation to this claim. But even this, in its own way, leads to further discussion of a wide variety of issues and adds to the level of challenge of your visit.
There is a danger that it can become the history of great men and it is wise to remember that many women played important roles during the war. Its not difficult to weave their story through the visit and indeed at Vancouver Corner or at Essex Farm you can talk about the FANYs who were caught up in the gas attacks of April 1915.
I’ve already mentioned the importance of keeping the narrative as clear as possible while at the same time being as rigorous as possible. A successful trip has to be challenging. Pupils have to be encouraged to grapple with the controversies and reach their own conclusions. Sadly the Great War is a topic that provides ample opportunity for pupils to get to grips with some very difficult and emotive issues. How is it, for example, that in Ypres there is a ‘Maarschalk Haiglaan’ (roughly translated as Marshall Haig Avenue) which presumably means the folk of Ypres regard him as worthy of celebration and others like John Laffin still regard him as a ‘butcher’ who should be vilified. In a classroom this question is interesting but in Flanders, having visited the Menin Gate, the Cloth Hall, Cathedral and then seen the Cemetery at Tyne Cot the issues are brought sharply into focus.
What does being courageous mean? A fourteen year olds vision of courage and bravery is often quite simple. The history of the VC is fascinating. The stories of countless WWI recipients of the highest award for valour are inspirational. At Essex Farm the story of Pte Thomas Barratt who was awarded a VC can be told alongside that of Lt Col John McCrae who laboured tirelessly in terrible conditions and under fire as a medical officer to save life and yet received no medal. Continue the theme….at Railway Wood, as well as describing the astonishing attack undertaken by the Liverpool Scottish during the Battle of Hooge, introduce Captain Noel Chavasse. The pupils are told of his action at Hooge in 1915 where he gained an MC but maybe they don’t take in. Certainly after a visit to Tyne Cot and learning about Passchendaele and the story of Captain Clarence Jeffries VC (who captured six machine guns and sixty five prisoners in separate actions) Chavasse is probably forgotten.
But they are stopped in their tracks when we finish the day at Brandhoek New Military Cemetery and finally visit Captain Chavasse’s grave. Reminded of his earlier MC and as they are told about his first VC in 1916 they start paying very close attention. By the time you’ve finished the citation describing the action for which he gained a posthumous bar to the VC they are visibly moved. Leave them to ponder on the fact that this man never killed a single person and yet is one of only three individuals to have been awarded a VC twice.
Give pupils a narrative to work with, make it relevant to them, anchor it in their community and make them think and your visit will always be a success. Henry and Henrietta may remember their burger and chips for a short while but they will remember their other experiences a whole lot longer. With a bit of luck they might even share it with their parents!