The Great War on a 9.7-inch Screen

This year’s centenary commemorations of the start of World War One have had a conspicuous presence on television and in the printed media and as the summer approaches and we mark 100 years since the Old Contemptibles marched in France it seems fair to guess that the coverage in the mainstream media will be even more thorough.  Schools across Europe are no doubt giving thought to how best to reflect those happenings in the classroom.  Certainly, we at ACS are pondering the question of what are the most appropriate and effective ways of giving children a context in which to understand the Great War.

kitchener_posterFor people of my age, schooled in the seventies and eighties, the Great War belongs to the twilight of living memory.  I grew up in an environment where the oldest generation, including several of my relatives had experienced the war either as soldiers on the Western front and other theatres, or as members of the home front.  My grandfather, great uncles and several members of my extended family had all been soldiers.  One lost a thumb at Gallipoli; another had been gassed and passed away at an advanced age in the nineteen-seventies after a lifetime of lung problems; two great uncles were killed in action in 1918 and my grandfather survived the war only to die of illness in 1929.  Tins could be found in the bottom drawers of various cabinets in my childhood home containing medals, ribbons, coins, letters and military badges from the period.  Two cards, lined with black and a few sepia photographs spoke to the memory of the two great uncles who had lost their lives.  The war felt part of my personal history.

That feeling is not possible in the same way for the current school generation.  My first two years as a teacher, in 1992 and 1993, coincided with the last two years anyone I knew of invited surviving World War One veterans into the classroom to address the children.  I remember one surprisingly sprightly nonagenarian telling my students how he had joined up in time to see the last few months of the war at the Western front – and how he had got through it “without even a scratch”.  He, and all his comrades, are now long gone.  The last British Tommy, Harry Patch, died in July 2009, and the last WWI veteran of any nationality, Florence Green, passed away in February 2012.  Today’s children’s understanding of the war – and their ability to make sense of it and relate it to their experience of the world, will depend not on hearing live first-hand accounts, but on their ability to navigate the multitude of resources available to them, and the guidance we give them in doing so.

A major part of those resources exist in places these students will access via their iPads.  The temptation for many teachers will no doubt be to regard online resources as material for consultation and review. iPads are certainly useful tools for such consumption of reference material, and there are scores of apps available for reproducing, sometimes in beautifully presented forms, the pictures, posters, newspapers and moving images from the war’s four-year period.

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These content consumption apps also include trivia quizzes and Top Trumps-style virtual card games (see below) that ostensibly teach the consumer something about the machinery or weaponry used in the war (with aviation disproportionately represented to a conspicuous degree).

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Content consumption is also the driving force behind the many podcasts, television and film productions and even poetry recital and music albums currently being prominently displayed on the iTunes store, not to mention the books, audio books and games that take World War One as a backdrop or theme for the events or action they feature.  But there are also many opportunities for students to create appropriate content using the resources on the Great War. Posters in apps such as Trevor D’Arcy-Evans’ comprehensive World War One Posters (shown below) can be incorporated into student written work, artwork or combinations of graphics and images in presentations using Pages, Moodboard, Keynote, ArtRage, Puppetpals, iMovie and so forth.

Screen Shot 2014-03-06 at 12.48.56Projects like these can be used to connect today’s students to the young men and women of 1914 who, informed and influenced by the media and social commentary of the day, joined up in their thousands to serve their countries.  Such work brings the period to life and allows today’s students to identify with and personalise the experience of the time they are studying.

More formal courses of study, some of which are connected to genuinely interactive work, are available via the iTunes U.  History and literature studies of the period of the Great War are offered, for example, by the University of Oxford (below).

Screen Shot 2014-03-06 at 13.04.43 The Great War is, therefore, extremely well represented in formats suited to the 9.7-inch (or 7.9-inch) iPad screens, and war resources available for iPads such as timelines, interactive archives, reference eBooks and the like can be incorporated into the modern classroom in a way that at least approaches the authenticity of my sprightly nonagenarian friend from 1993.  Imaginative use of authentic archive material also allows a multitude of perspectives to be understood, rather than one man’s personal memories, a caution Harry Patch himself mentioned in his only memoir, The Last Fighting Tommy.

For all those who did indeed get through the war unscathed – or at least in one piece, there are those who did not.  As I write this blog entry I have in front of me a letter written by one such member of the Fallen, my great uncle Syd.  The letter was written by Syd to his brother, Arthur, a private also on the front.  The envelope in which the letter was placed is addressed to M.G.C D Section, 106 Company, B.E.F. France, and is dated April 8th 1918.  In the letter, Syd says “…well, old boy, like you I am fed up with the whole thing, if it wasn’t for Bess and the children I should wish I was somewhere out of it but I think I shall trust to luck now I have had so much of it”.


Syd’s letter to his brother, Arthur. Written on April 8th 1918.
Syd was killed in action eight days later.

The letter was delivered to Arthur and it made it home to my family’s archive. Sadly, Syd did not make it home.  Stuck to the back of the envelope was the announcement of Syd’s death, killed in action at the age of 37, just eight days after he wrote the letter.

This letter has personal resonance for me and for my family, but there are equivalent stories in millions of families around the world, and there is deep and lasting learning associated with school projects that tap into such stories.  Clearly, we have a responsibility to ensure that events like the Great War can be understood, contextualised and made real for our students. Thanks to content creation apps and the efforts of teachers, iPads can have a useful role in that.