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The start of the First World War

Last updated: Jan 30th, 2019

The assassination of an archduke took place on the 28th of June and just over a month later most of Europe was plunged into war, a war that had consequences and a destructive capacity that no one could have predicted.

The road from Sarajevo is a much debated one and I’m sure that your students will discuss how complex that path was. What is amazing for some is that 100 years later those causes and debates are still contentious and engaging. The First World War is more than just an historical episode to be studied in the classroom, however, it is a memory, a lesson, it signifies many different things to so many different people.

The evidence of the war’s impact is present in our towns, cities and villages through war memorials and plaques. While not every family lost someone, every family would have known someone who served, carried out war work and was affected by the fighting. Despite the universal effect of the conflict at the time, the further we move away from that event, the more distant it will seem and the family connections will be remote or even forgotten.

The centenary provides an opportunity to dig deep into our family past or to investigate the people who lived in the streets or towns that we now do. It provides an opportunity to contemplate what is being commemorated and to reflect on how British, European and International societies responded to war 100 years ago.

The First World War remains a part of the National Curriculum and it is a part of GCSE and A level papers on history. The factual knowledge and understanding of the war is important for students to learn but the centenary should also help with the emotional connection – why does an event that was 100 years ago still matter? It matters because the world was changed forever and the physical evidence is still so powerful whether it is a plaque in a town hall, ‘a corner of a foreign field’, or a huge memorial such as the Menin Gate. To visit the Flanders Fields and to listen to the stories of the ordinary men and women who gave and saw so much is to develop a connection to the past that no book can create.

The centenary provides an opportunity for a new generation to connect to the past not just to learn about it, as educators it’s our job to make that happen. On 4 August when the commemorations begin I will reflect for a while on my family and how they suffered as a result of the First World War, and then I will turn to working on ways that today’s young people can learn about that generation, the individuals, those that didn’t return, those that did and the families affected. By learning about those people and standing where they stood and visiting where so many fought and died the centenary will go beyond books, exams or politics, it will be about an event that changed the world and has a presence in British society today as well as a permanent reminder in the Flemish countryside.