Sunday, 5 January 2014

WW1 and Blackadder

I shouldn't but I get rather wound up by people who criticise the use of Blackadder in the teaching of the First World War.  It was not made as a documentary and was never intended to be used as one.  It is a comedy programme and as such it sets out to make people laugh.  It uses satire and irony (and many other devices) to achieve this.

Many teachers use it and rightly so.  Just because you may not agree with the stereotypes in the characterisations, should not mean you disapprove of it being used in lessons.

In fact I do not use it in school, but on a coach!

I use Blackadder goes Forth on our annual October Battlefields trip.  We go for four days and spend a day near Arras, a day in the Somme and two days in Ieper.  

We use it on the coach ostensibly as a comedy show related to their visits those four days.  It is used as a teaching tool and also as a release valve, ie to get them to laugh when they have spent the whole day hearing and seeing and learning some pretty horrendous stories/personal histories of our boys' relatives.
Our first day alone can often see us visiting five or six sites and we've been up since 3 am.  We play the six episodes in broadcast order.  This works well.  When our coach drives from our last site on the first day to our youth hostel in Albert, there's just about enough time to watch the first one.

Our second day is a very intensive and emotional visit to the Somme battlefields, taking in as many as ten different sites.  (In 2013 there were as many as three of our forty boys who told us the story of their relative on the Thiepval Memorial alone).  After ten hours in cemeteries and battlefields our coach starts the 90 minute drive to Ieper in Belgium. Thus we get to see episodes 2-4.

Usually ( as we are on a coach and the boys are tired), we don't need to do much teaching, if at all, on the coach.  They might ask us a question which we answer, but our students see it as the clever parody that it is.

After our third day we are preparing for our participation in the Menin Gate ceremony.  Thus we do not watch 5-6 until we have left Ieper for the journey home.  Sometimes we watch the last episode before Calais, at other times we get to the crucial last scenes on the M25.  

The boys are exhausted after four days and there usually is a bit of chatter during 5 and even the start of 6.  However, wherever we are as 6 reaches its climax, be it in France, daylight, Britain or darkness, a hush falls over the entire coach.  On some occasions there have even been sobs heard on a coach of forty 15/16 year old boys!

Within less than an hour, their parents are picking them up and asking if they had a good trip.

Blackadder is a great teaching tool, emotion release and the perfect accompaniment to our tour.

Such is the power and brilliance of Blackadder.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

2014's Whodunnit?

Well let's be honest, German history is going to take a bashing from certain academics and writers this year.  With the seventieth anniversary of D Day and the much-publicised centenary of WW1 approaching, certain historians are going to opine about the two world wars, Germany's defeats and Britain's crucial role in both.

Naturally WW2 was a necessary evil against the tyranny of Nazism - an abhorrent ideology that threatened to engulf Europe and the world in horror and oppression.  There were millions of victims of Nazism and the defeat of Hitler and all the others who shared his warped vision  (of which D Day was a key event), should rightly be celebrated and commemorated.  However among the millions of Nazism's victims were millions of Germans.

The war against Der Fuhrer was justified, the war against the Kaiser is much more complicated.

Not many people will comment on the 180th anniversary of the Deutsche Zollverein, an important and non-military step towards unification, or the 125th anniversary of the failed Frankfurt Parliament, another attempt at the peaceful union of Germans through the will of the people.

No, sadly the focus will be on a war that started in 1914 which Britain won and Germany lost.  Also because Germany lost the war, she was blamed for it.  This blame was accentuated by events at the end of the 1930s.  Even in the 1960s some Germans themselves accepted blame for the 1914-1918 war.  Yet at this particular time if you had asked some German academics if they killed JFK, they would have said yes.

Well, I for one, am not buying this 'it was all the Germans' fault' nonsense.  Certainly the Germans were partly to blame for 1914 and its tragic consequences.  The Schlieffen Plan included an unnecessary assault on Belgian independence, the 'blank cheque' of July made the Austrian government overly provocative and arrogant in its treatment of the Serbian government, the tension between Britain and Germany was due in no small part to the personal animosity between Edward VII and Wilhelm II, and the Kaiser should take his fair share of the blame.  So Germany was to blame  - IN PART - for 1914.

However, Serbia as well as Russia, Austria and to an extent France also need to take their share of the blame.  Likewise British commentators should also remember the role Britain played in the 1914 debacle.  In 2014, it needs to be said that Britain was also to blame for the 1914-1918 war.

This view is unfashionable, unpopular and will not get much air time this summer.  This is a shame as it is our duty and responsibility to remember history objectively and dispassionately.

Germany WAS responsible for the outbreak of war in 1914, ........but so was everyone else.

Happy New Year

Happy New Year everyone and welcome to 2014.

2014 is going to be another big year for historians, especially WW1storians,

Whenever I think of anniversaries or commemorations, I am drawn first to military history.  Clearly many historians are going to focus on the centenary of the First World War in the next twelve months.  However there are other special anniversaries that reflect major social, political and economic changes across the globe.  These include -

  • 70th anniversary of D Day
  • 200th anniversary of Napoleon's surrender to the Allies and the start of the Vienna Congress
  • 30 years since the miners' strike
  • 90 years since the first Labour PM
  • 25 years since the Berlin Wall came down
Obviously there are many more and equally more important anniversaries before New Year comes round again, but these are just a very select few which reflect my specialism and preference for modern history.

Also 2014 is going to be a pivotal year in British politics as there is a crucial European election in May as well as Scotland's referendum on independence in September.  These results will shape Britain's politics, her relationship with Europe and the rest of the world for the next two generations.

My contribution to these commemorations will be infinitely small.  Over the next twelve months the History Department at John Hampden Grammar School have planned the following events -

  1. February : we will be taking our Year 9 students to the Army Museum in Chelsea,
  2. March/April : our Year 11 students will be studying the end of the Cold War and asking themselves who was the most responsible - Gorbatchev, Reagan, Thatcher, Kohl, Pope John Paul II or the Hoff!
  3. May : the whole school will have a vote in the JHGS European election
  4. June : our Lower 6th will start their A2 course on Superpower Relations 1944-1990 which will focus on the Cold War before 1945 and the controversy surrounding the timing of D Day
  5. October  : we will be taking 72 boys on our annual IGCSE Residential Visit to the WW1 battlefields and cemeteries including the areas of Arras, the Somme and Ieper
  6. November : we look forward to welcoming representatives from a Belgian school as part of our involvement with the national commemorations and the new Memorial Garden in London.
My aim (and hope) is that everyone involved in all historical commemorations, both inside and outside JHGS does so objectively and dispassionately.

Happy 2014

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

The Day We've All Been Waiting For!

At last, it's here.

The day all teachers live for- the end of summer term and the start of the holidays.

We were given our timetables for next year last week.  The first thing most teachers do upon getting their timetables is to look who they've got on the last lesson on Friday.  (As it turns out I've got one of my Upper Sixth classes - a mixed blessing).

Then when we get out teacher planners, we usually spend hours meticulously writing out the term dates, each day's lessons from September to Christmas, January to Easter and then from June to that day in July when term ends.  A frisson of joy and sheer ecstasy shivers down the spine at the very thought of walking out of school and not coming back for the best part of six weeks.

That feeling will be experienced by thousands of teachers at some point tomorrow lunchtime.  It is not that the weather will be brilliant.  Recent Augusts have been painfully disappointing.  Autumn has usually started by the end of August and if you're really unlucky, even before the August Bank Holiday.  In addition it seems this year that summer 2013 was July 2013.

It's just the knowledge that you can stop worrying about 8G, can relax that no parents will be e mailing you demanding to know why little Jimmy has gone down from a 7b to a 7c and what you are going to do about it when his target is 7a!

Only a teacher understands why teachers need six weeks off in the summer to recharge their batteries.

Not that I will stop working between now and September.  I have already planned the new Year 10 lessons for the Interwar Years 1919-1939 course for the first half term.  During the holidays I will be rewriting the lesson plans for the new Year 11 Cold War 1945-1990 course.  I should also be rewriting the Schemes of Work for the AS courses on Stalin's Rusia and Mao's China, let alone the A2 Superpower Relations 1944-1990 course.  Then of course there's A level results on August 15 th and GCSE results a week later.  Those will require a detailed, written analysis for the Headmaster for early September.

Nevertheless school finishes on Wednesday and I won't have to teach another lesson until the month after next.  That's a great feeling.


Monday, 1 July 2013

An Emm in the Somme

Much has been written about the Somme today.  This is only right and proper.  Ninety-seven years after this terrible start to the Battle of the Somme, to have different generations and different peoples represented to commemorate The Fallen is a fitting tribute.  There are a million and one stories about this tragic day in the fields of Picardy and I do not intend here to enter the Lions led by Donkeys v cruel necessity debate.

However my little vignette about why it's important to remember the Somme is in this photo.  I found F.T Emm a few years ago at Louvencourt Cemetery north of Albert.  I was visiting with my parents who wanted to see and know all about 'The Somme'.  I took to them all the obvious places and some not so obvious.  We had to make a special journey to Louvencourt as it is well off the beaten track.

One of my reasons to remember the Somme is simply to find out who F T Emm was.  I know he was a Private who died on August 27th 1916.  He was serving with the 1st/3rd South Midland Field Ambulance as part of the Royal Army Medical Corps.  He may be a relative or he may just be another Emm!  Ultimately that is not important.  What matters to me (and I hope him) is that I discover more about F Emm's story and tell other people; my students, his/our family, my parents, my sister, my young children and one day they can pass the story on themselves.

JHGS students visit the Somme every October, but we never go to Louvencourt.  Indeed it is about time I went back, this time with my young children. So I will promise you, myself and him that next time I pay him a visit, I will have found out some more about him and keep his story alive.  Maybe August 27th 2016 would be a good time!

Oh, I forgot to say, he was just 22 when he died!

Thursday, 27 June 2013

The History National Curriculum Rewrite

History is very much in the news at the moment, which is great.  Plus it's in the news because so many people are debating what should be taught in history lessons, which is even greater.  What's taught in history classes is very important.  Many people think Gove has got it wrong.  It's true that the pace of change on his watch is far too ambitious.  A new GCSE, new A levels and a new National Curriculum to boot is just far too much too quickly.  Thankfully this has been acknowledged in Whitehall and we should be grateful for small mercies!

     In all honesty whenever any Education Secretary says "Here's what we think should be taught in history lessons", they're just asking for trouble.  History is so emotive, so subjective, so political.  Every time a politician tells us what schools' history should be, we all jump up and yell "Well you would say that wouldn't you, you're biased".

    That's the problem with history.  Or rather, that's the beauty of history.  It is not a narrow subject with a set syllabus that is extremely difficult to vary.  There are a million and one topics that children could (and should) learn about in schools.  However our ideas on the history curriculum tell people much more about us than history.  Our choices depend on what we learnt at school (good and bad), our upbringing, where we live, where we would like to live and which history topics we hated and the ones we loved.

     Personally I found and still find the Industrial Revolution as dull as dish water.  However even though JHGS is an academy, we decided to keep it in our KS3 curriculum because it is an essential part of Britain's story, or should that be Britain's history?  We teach the Cold War after 1945 and this involves a discussion about Britain's post war decline as a great power.  Yet as part of this they need to appreciate how Britain became a great power, and how great a power she was.
     Also there are so few history lessons in the timetable.  Our year 7 and 9 boys get two lessons per fortnight whereas our year 8s get three hours a fortnight.  With the best will in the world, there are only so many topics you can fit in the schedule.  Also if you want your students to study a topic in any meaningful depth, we end up doing a topic per term.  That's just nine topics between years 7 to 9 out of one million and one!  African parents have complained to me there's not enough African history in the curriculum, Polish parents may well say the same.

      As a HoD at an academy this is largely irrelevant as we are not obliged to follow the National Curriculum.  However as a Head of History, the dilemma is still the same - "What DO you teach"?  To help answer this question as we applied for academy status, we carried out a survey of all our students on history at JHGS, but the main question was "what do YOU want to learn about"?  The results were very interesting.  Having dropped the GCSE Depth Study on Interwar Germany, a majority of boys told us they wanted to learn about Hitler.  It also informed our decision to teach 
Stalin's Russia and Mao's China at A level.  

     I have some sympathy with the NUT when it says teaching hours should be limited to four per day and that there should be a set amount of hours for planning, marking etc.  But how is this viable in the present financial situation?  However I do have some sympathy with Gove and his plans to rewrite the History National Curriculum.  He 's damned if he does X, he's damned if he does Y, either way he's just damned!

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

2015 The Waterloo Bicentenary

So today is Waterloo Day.  Or rather it is is the 198th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, a key event and turning point in European history.  I went there in 1982 and it looked a little plain, but I'm sure it looks much different now.  Until last weekend I was unaware that there are no official plans by the British government to commemorate the bicentenary in two years time.  There are certainly no plans by the government to spend any money on any commemoration.

Clearly this is in stark contrast to the much-publicized (and rightly so!) £50m plus that is being spent on the centenary of the Great War 1914-1918.  So why is Britain's participation in one European war being commemorated, but not another?

Certainly more men died in the First World War as fewer than 350,000 men died fighting France compared to roughly 750,000 men killed fighting the Kaiser.  However about 5.6 of Britain's casualties in the Napoleonic Wars died from disease, so the conditions for most of the men must have been comparable to life in the trenches.  In addition if after 1914 the BEF was fighting to stop one country's domination of Europe, then what on earth was the cause a hundred years previously?

I can't believe the British government, let alone the people, don't mind upsetting today's Germans by commemorating WW1, but are wary of upsetting the French about a European war a hundred years before that.  What would the Pub Landlord say?

Whether this is popular or not, the British people are - by definition - European.  This was one of the major reasons why war was fought against Napoleon because he threatened the balance of power in the European continent, not least when he escaped from exile in March 1815.  So because in 1815, as in 1915 and - dare I say it? -  in 2015, Great Britain was and is a European power, with a keen eye and a firm interest in the political, economic and military development of Europe, the events at Waterloo on 18th June 1815 are a significant part of the story of Britain, the story of our nearest continental neighbour France as well as a major part of the European story.  Ahead of 2014 European elections news of a government-sponsored commemoration of the history of the Napoleonic Wars and Britain's role in its iconic land battle may just jog a few Eurosceptic memories and maybe help burst the UKIP bubble!

We are European and we should embrace this, not pretend otherwise.

So we can do our bit to help people become more aware of the importance today of June 18th 1815 by following @Waterloo200org on Twitter or going to

Oh and sshhhh, whisper it softly to some people (!), but if it wasn't for Blucher and the German-speaking Prussians arriving in the nick of time on that fateful day, it might well be the French celebrating their greatest victory's bicentenary in 2015!!!