Accessible Battlefields’ visits

At Secondary Committee this term we have allowed ourselves to enjoy the feeling in schools of life returning to pre-pandemic norms. We want to seize that and rekindle our love of all those things we lost when we had to ‘teach from the front behind the line’. This is the first of a series of occasional blogposts that will accompany our other efforts this year to support colleagues to ‘get back out there and active’. That might be getting out from behind the line in the classroom, but for our first post, Gemma Hargraves from Secondary Committee is building back better re her school’s Battlefields trip.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about making a First World War battlefields trip accessible to neurodivergent and disabled pupils ahead of an upcoming trip to France and Belgium. I will write about the practicalities of this another time. However, as I was thinking, I realised that there are more barriers to overcome for more pupils. As trips begin again in the (almost) post-COVID world, it occurred to me that there may be more than physical and sensory barriers for some pupils to overcome to really embrace the opportunities available.

Ahead of the trip we make, we invite pupils to look at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and identify any familial links, but this led me to question how we could do this better. What of our pupils of Pakistani origin? What of those whose heritage is not within the Commonwealth? How about those pupils with mixed heritage, or who do not know where their family hailed from? How can we engage them just as much as those with British or Commonwealth backgrounds, right from the start of trip planning? On a potentially wet and windy hillside, we must help all pupils see the importance of what they can see and feel on the battlefields. Every pupil needs to be supported to make meaning from the visit.

As Remembrance Day approaches I tend to reflect on my own experiences of battlefields and I have previously done so for OBHD in November 2020 and Novmember 2021. I have concluded that some of the things that keep soldiers’ morale high in modern conflict zones are also key to helping pupils get the most from the Battlefields’ trip experience. 

Stories are key to making the experience both meaningful and memorable. Stories from Olusoga’s World’s War and Bourne’s Black Poppies and Fighting Proud must now make their way into teacher and tour guides’ repertoire. Stories of some of the four million non-European troops and ancillaries of colour who fought and died alongside European troops. For example, we need to talk about the role of the Chinese Labour Corps and ‘Deborah’ the British D51 tank, and aout the racial stereotyping the French Senegalese troops faced (and I recommend At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop here). How do we show we value the role of women played? Can and should we speculate on whether Kitchener was gay? There may be more questions than answers but I would urge teachers to discover some new stories to share with their pupils, and get comfortable with challenging questions and conversations alongside the old familiar anecdotes.

Security: In order for pupils to process what they learn about Battlefields in both a human and academic way, they need to feel secure. This is more than safeguarding; we cannot expect pupils to ask insightful questions if they worry about judgement of their peers, and we cannot expect pupils to really appreciate the Last Post at Menin Gate if they feel insecure in their learning or their environment. Part of this is also about challenging racial and gender stereotypes and making sure those stories are inclusive and representative. However, there are also some other points to note.

Firstly, consider if the trip overlaps a period of festivities such Diwali at October Half Term. Could adjustments be made to the programme to allow for celebration and recognition? Also consider how different faiths and cultures choose to remember and honour the dead. Could you adjust what you have done in the past to recognise that there are many different ways to mourn?

Secondly, to promote emotional security, it may be relevant to acknowledge the history of shell shock – our pupils today are more informed than we may expect about various mental health conditions so why not seize on that curiosity and link it back to the period. It may be surprising to them that in 1914, the Royal Army Medical Corps did not include any psychiatrists to treat war trauma. You could tell pupils that 3.5% soldiers were identified as suffering with “shell shock” at Passchendaele and question if that figure seems accurate or rather low. Most pupils will study the Battle of the Somme, but they are unlikely to know that following that battle, the Director General of Medical Services announced that the term shell shock should no longer be used, and all cases displaying “nervous symptoms of any sort” were to be classed as “nervousness” and “under no circumstances to be recorded as a battle casualty”. Although the First World War led to developments in the understanding of the impact of war on the mind, a more modern understanding of mental health and PTSD came much later. These details are important for pupils to be aware of as they may otherwise be tempted to compare their own challenges around mental health and wellbeing to those of the men and women over 100 years earlier. Hopefully their sense of security will allow them to engage objectively and sensitively with the past, including any mistakes made by commanders, whilst also appreciating the great strides made in various areas of medicine and society since. 

Staff: Finally, the adults supporting Battlefields trip are key to setting the tone for a successful trip – from engaging parents, inspiring pupils and being seen to learn themselves. 

In contrast to a trip to a museum, where staff may be less noticeable, pupils will look to staff on those fields to see that they’re listening too. That this history shaped them too, and they are in turn curious, respectful and reflective too. 

Staff will also shape pupils’ perspectives on how this past connects to our present. Be careful of your teacher talk and be prepared to challenge some of our older battlefields’ guide colleagues about the ‘we’. What is, the ‘we’? Sometimes one hears people referring to ‘we’ for the British lines and ‘they’ or ‘the Germans’ for the opposing lines. This is ahistorial and deeply problematic. We, today, are not the people who lived and died in the First World War. The past is gone. They (the people of the time) lived in a different world, they were different from us. The use of ‘we’ to define the British forces on the Western Front could also be deeply alienating to a child in your group with shared German-British heritage, or from a Ukrainian family, or from a family who were oppressed by British power in some way. It’s an oddly ‘othering’ way to talk about the past and is the opposite of what we are trying to achieve here.

To all those leading trips this year I wish you well, and alongside St Christopher’s blessing as saint of travellers, I hope you take with you the blessing of St Barbara – patron saint of artillery who I like to think watched over me in my own time on live battlefields. Trips like Battlefields provide a unique opportunity for pupils to immerse themselves in history that shaped the modern day and we owe it to them to make sure everyone can access this opportunity through stories, security and staff.

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