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SPRING 2015
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what war, whose memory?

On a Thursday evening in November I delivered a 20 minute presentation to a diverse audience of academics, teachers, teacher trainees as well as undergraduate and post graduate students at the University of Birmingham. The title of the lecture/workshop was Whose War, Whose Memory? Teaching the First World War in International Perspective. Other presentations were delivered by Professor Eckhardt Fuchs,and his two colleagues from the George Eckert Institute in Germany, and Dr Catriona Pennell, a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Exeter. This event was organised by Voices of War and Peace: the Great War and its Legacy and the Institute for German Studies at Birmingham University. The former is a First World War Engagement Centre funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council in partnership with the Heritage Lottery Fund. The University of Birmingham Centre is a joint initiative with a number of universities across the UK.

Dr Pennell’s presentation brought us up to date on her and a colleague’s latest research into how the First World War is being taught by History and English teachers across the country. It was interesting to note that there is an apparent tension between History and English teachers as to how the War should be taught with History teachers perhaps questioning whether English teachers should be involved in teaching cultural history. With both sets of teachers, there was clearly a relationship between popular perception of the war and the default topics that are taught - notably the Western Front, trench warfare and the origins of the war. It was also interesting that English and History teachers both recognise the potential moral dimension in teaching about the First World War, and often use teaching about the war as an opportunity to build pupils’ capacity for empathy. For History teaching, in particular, this raised the question of approaching the war as an historical and/or emotional event, particularly in the light of the emphasis placed on battlefield cemetery visits both by individual teachers, schools and the government (in its centenary funding).

Following an introduction into the work of the George Eckert Institute in Germany by Professor Fuchs, Dr Barbara Christophe and Dr Kerstin Schwedes shared with us some fascinating insights into the difference in approaches to the teaching of the history of World War One through their analysis of school text books from a range of countries. There appeared to be a clear link between a country’s current political situation and how the War itself was portrayed in that country; this was particularly highlighted by those textual amendments that had accompanied political change in Russia since the demise of the Soviet Union.
Both of these presentations reassured me that the structure of the presentation was appropriate. As the Peace Education Officer my contribution differed in that it was clearly not an academic paper related to a particular aspect of teaching about World War One. After a brief introduction and background to the PPU the starting point was an image of the mural, that sees Keir Hardy addressing the huge War against War demonstration that took place in Trafalgar Square two days before Great Britain became involved in the First World War on 4 August 1914. The words on the mural, It was NO then and it will always be NO, served as a reminder that there was a significant anti-war movement before and during WW1.
Dr Pennell’s presentation reinforced a view that contemporary English and History teaching is, probably unconsciously, perpetuating a view of WW1 that contains a number of hidden histories.

Continuing with a theme of the hidden history of the anti-war movement, a brief description was given of the experiences, treatment and stereotyping of Conscientious Objectors after the introduction of conscription in 1916, as any initial enthusiasm for war had all but disappeared. Also raised was the absolutely seminal role of women in the Non Conscription Fellowship as well as their role in the anti-war movement as a whole.

The work of the George Ekhart Institute reminds us of the clear link between contemporary nationalist political thinking and how WW1 is being taught across Europe. I was therefore reassured that I had gone on to make a link between the military character and almost hysterical promotion of Remembrance today in the UK with a number of governmental educational initiatives, that together surely confirms an encroachment of militarism into the State education system.
Without having to go into detail, the audience’s attention was drawn to some of the initiatives that make up a clear strategy by the government to promote a ‘military ethos’ in schools. It was appropriate though to spend a little time on the government introduced Battlefield Tours programme that involves two students and one teacher from every state funded secondary school in England visiting the battlefields on the Western Front. I was able to raise the issue of the inappropriateness of each coach ferrying teachers and pupils to the killing grounds containing at least one serving British soldier. Dr Pennell is currently undertaking research into the pupils’ perception of their trips to the Battlefields and it will be interesting if this was to reveal any concerns being expressed by learners themselves as to the presence amongst them of uniformed soldiers.
Later, in the discussions that followed, mention was made of The British Armed Forces Learning Resource, a politically motivated document, produced by the Ministry of Defence and the Prime Minister’s Office, and distributed to schools in 2014.It presents a sanitised version of war and glorifies ’military values’ as well as an uncritical history of British military interventions. The section on the First World War contains a number of simplistic notions that included the idea that Britain did not want war but it could not be avoided as well as a failure to make any mention of the British Empire, never mind Empire related war aims.

The Peace Pledge Union intends to keep coming back to the the whole issue of the increasing militarisation of British society and in particular what is happening in schools but if the general response of the audience at Birmingham University is anything to go by people will find its message not only challenging but also timely and refreshing.

Peter Glasgow

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