Lions led by donkeys?

The recent furore over how the First World War should be interpreted has, directly and indirectly, raised questions about how the period should be taught in schools. It is worth noting, first, that the First World War is one of the most commonly taught periods of history in school: there is probably not a single pupil in the country who has not studied it. The First World War battlefields – particularly those of Flanders and the Somme – are visited by vast numbers of pupils each year. We can, therefore, be quite confident in stating that schools – for once – probably do play an important role in determining the historical consciousness of the country.

The debate about the First World War, at least within the UK, centres on three key questions.

  1. Why did it begin?
  2. How bad were the generals?
  3. What role was played by non-English troops?

I want in this post to focus on question (2), though the points I make here will apply equally well to (1) and (3).

A recent political spat broke out between Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Tristram Hunt over how the British generals from the First World War were portrayed. Gove and Johnson were keen to rescue the image of the generals who, in common culture, are portrayed as ‘donkeys’ sending brave British ‘lions’ into battle.  One of the most famous modern depictions of this is Blackadder Goes Forth.

I wish to be clear here: any history teacher who thinks that sticking Blackadder on the screen constitutes an education about the First World War should not be in the job. I have never met a single history teacher who does this, though I am sure that examples can be found. It is, however, certainly true that many history teachers do use Blackadder in their lessons: I am one of them. What matters, of course, is how it is used. Margaret MacMillan rather hit the nail on the head in today’s Guardian.

Can I suggest that we start by keeping in mind that there is a key difference between myths, which can be disproved by looking at the evidence, and interpretations, which take the evidence into account?

All of the history teachers with whom I have had the pleasure of working have no interest in teaching a single interpretation of the past. Indeed, the National Curriculum, since 1991, has maintained a strong focus on teaching children that the past can be interpreted in different ways. The new curriculum – produced by Mr Gove’s department – states that children should be able to

discern how and why contrasting arguments and interpretations of the past have been constructed.

I taught a scheme of work on First World War leadership a number of times and I always found it ideal for teaching children this important piece of knowledge: that the past can be interpreted in different ways. Here’s a brief summary of  one, relatively simple, way to do it with Year 9.

Enquiry Question: ‘Lions led by donkeys’? How have historians disagreed about the quality of First World War leadership? 

Lesson 1

This lesson begins with a short clip from Blackadder. There are numerous options, but this one works well. After watching the clip I ask pupils to write a quick summary of the image of the generals in popular culture. The point here is that pupils recognise that there is a popular interpretation, and it is one which is critical of generals.

Next, I get pupils to read this extract from AJP Taylor’s English History (Taylor). Pupils write a list of arguments that Taylor makes and the examples that support these. This is followed by some teacher-led discussion about Taylor’s argument, which pupils then have to write a summary of in their books.

I finish the lesson by gradually revealing the following image. I ask pupils to speculate as to what kind of person would receive this kind of funeral, and what the attitude of the crowd is to the procession. I finish the lesson by revealing that this was Field Marshall Haig’s funeral in 1928, a classic history teacher ‘curved ball’ to set up the next lesson.


Lesson 2 

I begin this lesson by recapping the interpretations that pupils encountered in the previous lesson, testing to see if they can remember three criticisms that Taylor made of the generals. I then bring back the image of Haig’s funeral, and use this to pose the question as to whether they might be other interpretations of First World War leadership.

Next I ask pupils to read this extract from Gordon Corrigan’s book Mud, Blood and Poppycock (Corrigan). Again, they have to note down the main arguments that Corrigan makes, and the specific examples he gives to support these. I follow this by putting up the points from the previous lesson from Taylor’s book, and then ask pupils to contrast Taylor’s and Corrigan’s interpretations.

There are various outcome tasks that might be used to end this short scheme of work, and I have tried several. The emphasis here is on how historians disagree and not why, though with a few additional lessons the scheme could be developed in this direction. I might get pupils, at this point, to write a short essay contrasting the arguments of Taylor and Corrigan. Alternatively, pupils could be asked to write a critique of Blackadder, or some other popular interpretation (such as Gove’s Daily Mail article).

I do not think it is possible or even desirable to approach every period of history through the lens of different interpretations: I do think, however, that periods which attract a great deal of popular comment are ideal for meeting this requirement of the National Curriculum. This is not about teaching some postmodern account whereby anything goes. It is, however, about showing that multiple interpretations of the past are possible. Any pupil who leaves school without this knowledge has not, to my mind, had a sufficiently rigorous education in history.

2 Comments on Lions led by donkeys?

  1. Hi Michael – You ever watched the Timewatch documentary Haig: the unknown soldier ? –

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