Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Rats and dead bodies in the classroom!

What did it really feel like to
be a soldier in the First World War?
(Postcard courtesy of David Clark)
When I think back to history at school, what do I remember? Two teachers. One droning on about Stone Age flints, the other instructing us to make notes from our  textbooks about Jethro Tull's seed drill while he nodded off at the front.

I'm sure they were both doing their best so I won't mention any names, but if only they'd used a bit of imagination history lessons would have been so much better. If only they'd been more like Miss Woulfe!

Nicole Woulfe is an American teacher from Newton, New Hampshire, who is currently teaching her class of 11 and 12-year-olds about the First World War. She got in touch, after hearing about my book on Twitter, to ask if I would be interested in having a chat with them on Skype about my soldiers' letters. I was more than happy to oblige.

The First World War didn't affect the United States in the same way as it did Britain, Europe, and countries of the former British Empire. As a result American students are far more familiar with their own Civil War. So what better way to make a distant conflict more interesting than through the eyes of those who lived through it?

Last week I spent a very stimulating afternoon (morning over there) talking to the students about the two topics they're covering: what life was like in the trenches, and the devastating influenza epidemic that followed the war. They were full of interesting questions, such as:

  • How long did it take to dig a trench?
  • Did soldiers eat rats?
  • What happened to the dead bodies?
  • Did soldiers get much sleep?
  • What effect did the influenze epidemic have at home?
  • Can you visit battlefield graveyards today?

Two stories in particular that I recounted made an impression on the class, said Miss Woulfe: 'They were most touched by the story of the fellow who was arrested for drunkenness in the trenches, even though he was just exhausted, and they were most shocked by the soldiers shaking the hand of an already dead and buried soldier.'
Both stories will be told in full in my book.

Full marks to Miss Woulfe for combining vivd primary sources (soldiers' letters) with new technology (Skype) to bring history alive. It was certainly an afternoon that I will remember.

  • Watch this space! I hope to post a picture of the students of Newton, New Hampshire, soon.

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