I remember the first time I studied the First World War in school, it was the beginnings of my GCSE years and the cementing of my interest and passion for History. Up to that point it had always been interesting yes, but of a cookie cutter format, starting with Romans, then the Tudors, the Victorians, the Industrial Revolution and so on.
For the first time though we were going to learn about one of, if not THE most significant event in the 20th Century and perhaps since records began, when one conflict would have repercussions around the world and permanently change the perception of warfare.
Lessons focussed on how the war was fought and how it started, facts rather than first hand experiences and I guess it did fall back into the “Cookie Cutter Format”. But the seed had been planted and when First World War Poetry came up in my A-Level English Literature Class it yet again galvanised my passion for the subject.
I had been terrible at Literature up to this point, I hadn’t grasped how to properly analyse what a writer like Carol Anne Duffy for example was intimating in her prose. However that changed with the poetry of Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, Rudyard Kipling. I had a historical understanding of the conflict to fall back on which made the horrific experiences of Owen and Graves all the more fascinating.
Those few months studying First World War poetry changed my outlook on war in much the same way the actual conflict had on people at the time. Previously it had been that “Fun glorious game” one played in the military, but that mythical idea was shattered reading Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est:
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
Dr Sedon in the BBC article I have linked at the beginning and end of this post, said that teenagers could identify with the emotional terrain of the battlefield, the stories and poetry from the trenches connected with their own anxieties. To an extent I think he is absolutely right, the boys who went to war had to quickly become men just as teenagers going into A-Level study are doing the same if a little slower.
The war had an indelible effect on Britain and changed the shape of the world with the creation of international organisations like the League of Nations. In the same way our teenage years have an indelible effect on us and shape the human being we are going to be. The war challenged society’s antiquated perception of modern warfare, in a similar way College and University challenge our childhood perceptions of the world around us.
Schools are going to be at the forefront of Centenary celebrations this year as they rightly should and I implore you to read the fantastic BBC Article I borrowed my title from.
Delve into your Ancestors Stories on Forces War Records…
While we have millions of military records, check out our historic documents library which includes personal diaries of servicemen kindly donated to us:
Keep checking in with Forces War Records for the latest on First World War Centenary events. Don’t forget to check out the Government’s Plans for the Centenary here: