Learning lessons from war? Inclusions and exclusions in teaching First World War history in English secondary schools

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Date: Spring-Summer 2016
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Document Type: Essay
Length: 13,435 words
Lexile Measure: 1820L

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This article explores how secondary school pupils in England are integrated into the First World War centenary practices of remembrance with a particular focus on education. It discusses which narratives of the war are included in and excluded from secondary-level classroom history teaching and raises important concerns relating to the "memory messages" that are being communicated via history teaching of the First World War and the consequences of such narratives regarding the replication of power relations, a continued inability to deal with Britain's colonial legacy, and an uncritical normalizing of the military in the minds of young people.

Keywords: education; First World War; centenary; cultural memory; youth


Reflecting on the 80th anniversary of the Armistice that ended the First World War (1998), Dan Todman predicted that even though that war was passing out of the memory of living Britons, it was unlikely to be "shelved" as merely an event in history, devoid of any emotional interest or connection for the majority of the population. Interest would be renewed around the centenary. (1) He was right. As early as January 2013, Hew Strachan noted the "clouds of the media blizzard are forming." Nineteen months later, at the time of the 100th anniversary of Britain's entry into the First World War on August 4, 2014, it had become an inescapable fog. (2)

Even though it is receding further into the past with few people left to "remember" it directly, the First World War--like the Second--has a lingering and vivid presence in British popular culture. Even those born after the event have "memories" of it. (3) Why does British society place such emphasis on remembering the First World War, one hundred years since its outbreak? To some extent, the reasons for commemorating the First World War are the same as for any other conflict that has involved British armed forces. One of the main components of national identity (whether in Britain or elsewhere) is the memory of courageous deeds and heroic sacrifices of the soldiers of a nation. As Benedict Anderson argues, the tombs and cenotaphs of unknown soldiers are the most "arresting emblems of the modern culture of nationalism." (4) In fact, as Ernest Renan claimed, the constitution of a nation relies on "the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories" especially if the legacy is composed of past glories and past sufferings. (5) Practices of remembrance can reinforce feelings of national pride and, according to George Mosse, domesticate modern war so that it becomes a "natural part of political and social life." (6) However, empires and nations have their usable and unusable pasts: "national identity and honour depend upon the recitation of selective histories." (7) As Renan also reminded us, forgetting (even to the point of historical error) is as much about the creation of a nation as memory. (8)

However, there are specific reasons why the First World War is being remembered during its centenary. According to British Prime Minister David Cameron, speaking in 2012, despite the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A447636819