If you are a regular reader of this blog you may well have picked up on the fact that I am mildly obsessed by the First World War at the moment. With the 100th anniversary I was determined to redo our scheme of work and really do this rich period of history service.
I will eventually (give me a few weeks) blog on the finished scheme of work – I’m very nearly done. But in the meantime I thought I might talk through a bit of this planning.
To kick off the scheme of work I wanted to introduce the war through the story of a single individual as I strongly believe in the power of the particular. What do I mean by this? Macro-narrative is great but if we stick with just the big picture do students ever really get a true sense of what it was like? It’s time the nano-narrative took centre stage!
Previously teaching WW1 I’d totally focused on the macro narrative – 9 million mobilised, 900,000 killed, 2 million wounded – and that was just the British and the Empire. This was fine but students really had no idea about the motivations, the horror and heroics of the men who had fought on the front lines.
So to tackle this I wanted to pick one story. But I’ll admit it, this isn’t my special subject so I needed to call in the cavalry. In Bristol, English Heritage education led by Michael Gorely is superb with a vast bank of knowledge and a desire to help, so I emailed him. Within an hour Michael told me to contact Jeremy Banning, a local historian who is a specialist on WW1. Within a few more hours Jeremy had provided me a list of Victoria Cross winners from Bristol, one of whom happened to live 90 yards from my teaching room – I’m not making it up.
The man in question was called Hardy Falconer Parsons (what a name!) A trainee doctor with Bristol University, Parsons was a 20 year old second lieutenant for the Glosters, and was in charge of a bantam regiment. A regiment of men who were all below the required height for service. On 20/21 August 1917 near Epehy, France, during a night attack by the enemy on his bombing post, the bombers holding the post were forced back, but Parsons remained at his post and single handed fought back against the Germans who were armed with flame throwers. He continued to hold up the enemy with bombs until severely wounded, later dying of his wounds and receiving the Victoria Cross posthumously. Again I repeat – I’m not making it up.
I knew this was an amazing story that would hook the students in and illustrate the importance of the First World War in a way sheer numbers would not. The thing was how would I tackle this.
Jeremy Banning gave me access to his electronic files on Parsons, so I had VC records, the telegram informing his parents of his death; the lot. Within in this I found a reference that said that Parson’s story appeared in The Victor comic. Playing around for a while on the net I worked out which edition the story appeared in. I hit Ebay hoping for a copy, got lucky and within a few days had the 1970s edition with the story and it was as good as I had hoped. This would be my lesson.
I’m going to start with the death telegram and use this to generate questions the students have about Parsons and WW1 in general. Then I’ll explain how he lived 90 yards from where they are now. Next we’ll read The Victor together. After this the students will have a pack of primary evidence (thanks Jeremy) which they have to use to prove that The Victor got the story right.
Then I wanted the students to do some writing. Parsons has never been given a blue plaque (other VC winners have) so my students (they don’t know this yet) will lead a campaign to get Parsons the plaque I believe he deserves. I’ve contacted the residents of the house and they are very keen.
I appreciate this single lesson has taken me ages but I strongly believe it should result in better outcomes than my boring old macro narrative I taught this year. I’ll let you know later in September.