School trips are often memorable for the wrong reasons, but sometimes chance encounters bring lessons that could never be learned in a classroom.
History is full of wars. Sometimes I felt that I dispatched thousands to their deaths before break, then thousands more after lunch. I used poetry, photographs, music and diaries to try to bring soldiers to life, but as my students continued to write sentences such as “unfortunately 6 million people died” I knew I’d failed.
I had no experience of war, but I had studied many. The first World War always seemed different. My grandfather fought first to last but never spoke of it, instead bringing home a puppy from one of the smashed French farms, a tiny creature forced to stand symbol for all that could not be said. My father used to tell me about walking past the Star and Garter Home in Richmond as a boy, and seeing the old soldiers, many of them in their twenties and thirties, staring and gently rocking.
When my father died, it was the First World War I couldn’t teach: weeks later I was unable to speak of the futile deaths and wasted lives without facing the window, tears running down my face. There was something utter about the loss of humanity that allowed that pointless war to continue. I am not saying that it was a worse war than the Second World War, or any subsequent or previous wars, but for me, blessed with the infinite privilege of not having lived through one in my country, it was the war that taught me about war.
In fact it was a school trip to the war graves that taught me what even the best book could not, and taught my students too.
July, skylarks, a perfect, timeless summer day. We set off from London early, by bus and channel tunnel, my mind on lunches, lists and toilets. We took all of Year 11 who had ‘done’ the war, but were mostly excited by a day off school. Our first stop was the cemetery at Tyne Cot, Belgium, close to where the three battles of Ypres had been fought.
The visitor centre was yet to be built, so once everyone was off the bus I was suddenly able to take in my surroundings: more than 10,000 identical white headstones, row on row, each planted with a single rose, framed by manicured grass and an unbroken blue sky. It was impossibly beautiful.
My students walked round solemnly, reading inscriptions – thousands ‘known only to God’ – and talking in whispers. The air was still and heavy; there was something of church about it.
Suddenly a bus pulled up and tens of tiny Belgian children tumbled out and started zooming around across the grass. They shouted and screamed, ran around, pushed one another, and pretended to be airplanes. My students were horrified. They rushed to me, begging me to do something – I didn’t need to be told twice! I too was appalled that this sacred place had been so violated and was ready to give the children’s teachers a piece of my mind.
Before I had the chance they approached, smiling, and said, in perfect English: “We hope you will understand: these children live in the villages and we bring them here so they aren’t afraid of all the graves and dead people.
So many of the men buried here were so young that they died before they were married; we think they would like to hear the children’s voices.”
Later in the day we saw the small piles in the corners of the fields where the farmers place the unexploded ordinance they still turn up. Here, where Passchendaele’s mud devoured more men than both sides’ bullets, bodies still sometimes rise to the surface.
The German cemeteries tell their own story. No flowers, few individual gravestones, dark, shady trees providing cover. How much courage it must have taken to visit your son or husband buried deep in enemy soil.
There may be no more important work a teacher can do than help their students understand the reality of war, whether by letting those with first hand experience tell their stories, or by going to the places where wars are not History yet.
So don’t lock down the curriculum, force everyone through assessment hoops and slash budgets: make space and time for us to stand back, so war can teach itself.