A day of talks and workshops at Carshalton Boys Sports College
Prior to the armistice period and a subsequent battlefield trip to the Somme I spent a day at Carlshalton Boys Sports College. I had been invited there by History teacher, Julie Haunstetter.
What marked this day out over many of the other school visits I undertake was the commitment and interest shown by students. The school and history department had clearly vested a great deal of thought into the theme of remembrance in 2014 with one student Regan writing a heartfelt poem which has been added to a T-shirt to raise funds. This had been picked up by the BBC and Regan and a fellow student, Sam, had accompanied Julie Haunstetter on to the BBC Breakfast sofa.
For my November visit we had planned a full day with sessions looking at a variety of topics including enlistment, training and life in the trenches plus a session on tunnel warfare and our archaeological work at La Boisselle.
The most rewarding session was spent with higher ability students casting a critical eye over the use of sources. Over the past few years I have been horrified to hear and observe students simply relying on Google as a means to gather knowledge. I wanted Carshalton’s students to analyse why this was wrong and, as an example of flawed material, offered in a critical look at certain reference sources used in the writing of the Great War.
An obvious place to start was the British Official History (or to give it its full name, the History of the Great War based on official documents by direction of the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence). I explained the process in which versions had been compiled. Ongoing analysis has found many inconsistencies in these volumes. I was able to show the students examples of correspondence between officers and the official historian, James Edmonds, held under reference CAB45 at the National Archives, Kew. What soon became obvious to all was that no ‘Other Ranks’ were consulted whatsoever. The Official History is an officers view of the war. The rank and file had little or no input.
Even more telling was the date that volumes were published. The two volumes covering 1914 were published in 1922 and 1925. Those covering 1918, the year of victory, were published before and even after the Second World War! For Volumes IV & V this is nearly thirty years after the events the books are chronicling. The drop in quality is clear to see and a study of the CAB45 records for 1918 show it was not always possible to rely on memories of ageing men. This prompted the students to think how best to write an accurate history.
Next, I gave examples of falsehoods and exaggeration in British war diaries. I have been lucky enough to have been privy to the research that my colleague Peter Barton has gathered from German archives over the last few years. What the research shows is revelatory. Many hours have been spent on telephone calls discussing and cross-referencing the inconsistencies between British and German records. Put simply, one cannot find the truth if one doesn’t use all available sources. The histories we rely on – official sources – are not corroborative history. German records have been neglected horrendously over the last century. I was able to offer examples of inconsistencies in British reports that were taken as the truth when a simple cross-reference check of the records of the German unit on the other side of No Man’s Land would have provided a much clearer story; in short, a corroborative history. I also talked of the ongoing public and media fascination with Ypres and the Somme at the expense of any other Western Front battle. It was certainly something that got students and staff thinking….
The day ended with an hours discussion and presentation on remembrance. Finally, I must say how brilliantly the Carshalton students behaved. They were a credit to the school and I look forward to the chance to visit again in the future.
Finally a moment to put down a few words to thank you properly for last Friday. Your series of talks were absolutely amazing. The students were spell-bound the entire time and captivated by everything you presented to them. I have never seen them sit so still for so long! Their knowledge has clearly been enhanced by all that you spoke of (I have already been challenged several times as to why we are not learning about Arras), and at the same time, you have increased their interest and passion for learning about the First World War. A fantastic day, which we all thoroughly enjoyed. Julie Haunstetter, History teacher, Carshalton Boys Sports College