History: First Year Pupils Explore 'The Great War'

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First Year pupils review sources in preparation for an in-class debate.

 

This has been an obvious Academic Year in which to memorialise the First World War in a way we at Bede's have never done so before.

The place we did so was in the First Year curriculum, where we embarked upon a study of a war which cast an enormous shadow over the twentieth century.

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Until comparatively recently, we have been privileged to witness the living embodiments of veterans who were able to move us with their deeply personal narratives of what it was like. I know that many young historians in the First Year had their imagination sparked and alerted and there was a genuine connection that was made with the people and events whose lives that had been changed for ever.

Whenever we study the Twentieth Century we can't but help turn to these four and half years and be startled by what the men and women of Europe went through.

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This, then, is the way we commenced our study of History in Year 9 and, because these events have been seminal to the history of Britain and the world, we decided that we would ask the question - what happened next?

Of course, there are huge debates amongst historians about the role that the First World War played in the gestation of World War II. The impact on Germany of the defeat in 1918 was traumatic to say the least and it is clear from the evidence that there was rancid bitterness around the armistice and the ending of that war.

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The question of "who betrayed Germany?" took root in right wing circles and would be used by the Nazis and others as a reason for all the ills and suffering experienced by Germany in the 1920s.

The 'what-happened-next' is crucial to an historian's understanding of the cataclysmic events from 1937 onwards when China was invaded by Japan. This inter-war period saw the rise of the totalitarian states - Germany, Italy and Japan - which needed to use military adventures to demonstrate their importance on the world stage.

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The international situation became so tense and nerve-wracking that many of those who had survived World War I were determined to stop another conflict. The cost to their reputations has been huge - these arch-appeasers who would do anything to prevent a war with Germany.

So searing and awful is that History that subsequent leaders have used the Munich Conference (1938) - where the British and French capitulated in the face of Hitler's demands over Czechoslovakia - as the reason to go into Suez in 1956 and Iraq in 2003.

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Why did we decide that the 1930s was an important part of our understanding of History? Having now experienced one of the longest periods of peace in Europe, it seems extraordinarily difficult to sum up the imagination, without a proper study, of the origins of another word-scale conflict that occurred so quickly after the end of a war that had supposedly made politicians so acutely conscious of the consequences, and thus so wary, of war.

After all, it had scarred and traumatised a generation.

The collapse of international peace in the thirties, therefore, is the focus for the historians in Year 9. It is a chance for them to understand what happened and why it happened and helps explain how men of the calibre of Churchill were able to, at a crucial moment in our history, make the kind of contribution that they did.

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It is also an opportunity to see how absolutely possible it is for maniacal politicians to whip up a people into believing that for Germany to be great again it had to obliterate the shame of defeat in 1918.

Equally, it is important to see the consequences - devastating consequences for countless people: these places are now in the history books - the martyrdom of Oradour-sur-Glane, the skies above southern England, the death camps of Treblinka and Auschwitz and the battlefields of Stalingrad and El Alamein.

They are but a handful of the places that witnessed the horrors of warfare.

 

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