WW1 for A-Level Literature

I have spent the last few weeks marking AS level scripts for the new AQA English Literature exam, Paper LTA1B, about literature of the First World War. So I thought I’d put a few hints and tips from a marker here, for the benefit of any teachers or students who might happen to find this blog.

I think the paper is a tricky one because it requires some basic historical understanding as well as literary knowledge. In answering Question One, students are given marks for relating an unseen passage not only to other texts, but also to a historical context.
Poorer candidates often fall down because they have no sense that they are writing about a very different world, and one where issues matter. It is hard for an examiner to find marks for the student who wrote: “Sassoon was not a great fan of the war and did not really agree with it.” This is a statement from the slacker politics of vague opinions about subjects you feel disconnected from – hardly seeming to belong to the same world as  Sassoon’s passion and courage.
When it comes to History, in almost every script I marked, futility rules. Teachers have given the students a historical framework (maybe based on the interpretation given in Brian Gardner’s Up the Line to Death ) that at the beginning of the War, men joined up in a spirit of mindless patriotism, which continued until the Battle of the Somme, after which everybody became disillusioned, and then nobody had any respect for the Generals.
Many are convinced that British participation in the War was a complete failure. Several students whose papers I marked were surprised that (in a letter to his mother set as an unseen passage for commentary) Owen  refers to successful attacks that gained their objectives. This does not tally, they say, with what they have read about the war. Some suggest that Owen was hiding the truth from his mother, and really the attack had been a disaster like all the others. There is very little recognition that this was a war that the British and their allies won. I strongly suspect that the historical knowledge of many teachers is hazy. Maybe I’ll produce a reading list for students to give their teachers, including texts like Gary Sheffield’s ‘Forgotten Victory’, Brian Bond’s The Unquiet Western Front and Dan Todman’s The Great War: Myth and Memory, which question the orthodox literary view that the War was entirely futile.
One particularly poor centre seems to have been trained to divide all war literature into “pro-war” (bad) and “anti-war” (good). All wartime texts are slotted into one or other category, which does not encourage careful reading of those (such as the Wilfred Owen letter set for commentary in the exam) where attitudes are ambivalent or confused.
Don’t get me wrong. The war-as-futile argument is a respectable point of view, and I was very happy to give very good marks to students who argued it well. The trouble is that it frequently seemed to get in the way between some of the candidates and an objective reading of the passage they had in front of them.
Many candidates are completely convinced that all Generals were always uncaring, and see evidence for it everywhere. Some prove the point by describing the behaviour of General Melchett in Blackadder Goes Forth, as though that were a documentary. One student wrote indignantly about Tynan’s poem  Joining the Colours, in which soldiers go off to war on buses, playing tin whistles and mouth organs that it was shameful that the Generals had not provided them with proper instruments.
Several commented on Robert Graves’s sardonic little poem, The Leveller, about two contrasting soldiers killed by the same shell. It ends:

Old Sergeant Smith, kindest of men,
Wrote out two copies there and then
Of his accustomed funeral speech
To cheer the womanfolk of each:-

“He died a hero’s death: and we
His comrades of ‘A’ Company
Deeply regret his death: we shall
All deeply miss so true a pal.”

Three candidates whose work I marked said that this proved the callousness of generals, who could not even be bothered to know their men individually. They quite missed Graves’s insistence that the Sergeant (a very long way from being a General) was kindly. Very few candidates realised that letter-writing under these circumstances is difficult, and that if the good sergeant had found a formula that would alleviate the pain of mothers and widows, he was probably wise to use it. Well, the candidates are young. One day some of them will have to write letters of condolence. Won’t they too look for words that might ease the pain? Won’t they too be tempted to use stock phrases?

Students are asked to relate the unseen passage on the exam paper to their wider reading, and many do this very well. Problems come when students haven’t read much, and comparisons become forced. Weak candidates display their memory of Blackadder, rarely to useful effect, unless they are able to contrast its style with that of other writing. A lot of schools obviously furnish their students with a book of snippets from World War One literature. This can be useful, but can lead the dimmer students into mistakes. One wrote that there is no conflict between the characters in Journey’s End. Eh? As a marker I was flummoxed by this more than somewhat inaccurate statement until I realised from her further comments that the poor girl had only read one scene of the play (in which the soldiers were getting on well) and had taken this as representative of the whole thing.

Candidates like using big words, but teachers need to warn students that these should be used accurately. I marked one centre where the word of choice was ‘juxtaposing’. They used it in all sorts of ways, such as:

The rhyme scheme is juxtaposing of the content.

What can that possibly mean?
And I lost count of the different spellings of ‘euphemism’ that students offered.

(By the way, I know it’s probably not fair to make fun of what students write in the stress of an exam, but I can’t help mentioning the candidate who thought the actors in Oh What a Lovely War were dressed as pirates (meaning pierrots). Or the one who wrote about Sorley’s poem, ‘Untilted’.).

If I were preparing an AS-level class for this paper, the thing that I would insist on every lesson is that most people had ambivalent feelings about the War. There were a few unthinking jingoists, and a few outright pacifists, but for the most part most people of Britain believed in two propositions that were difficult to reconcile.
1. They knew that the war was in a righteous cause, and believed that it would have been wrong for Britain to keep out of the conflict in 1914.
2. They knew that the cost of any war was terrible, and that this war’s cost was particularly appalling.
Almost all non-trivial wartime literature can be seen as an attempt to reconcile these two dissonant propositions. (Some later texts, of course, do not accept the righteousness of the cause, and therefore provide a simplified view of the war, the ‘futility’ myth so obviously beloved of many teachers.) If you’re presented with a piece like the Owen extract, it can be useful to  see how far the writing endorses these two propositions, and how it tries to resolve the conflict.


  1. Posted June 30, 2009 at 6:07 am | Permalink

    George — this is a fascinating insight.

    Were you in any way instructed in the art of handing out marks? In the past, there have been denunciations from A level markers of exam boards who oblige them to give marks for simple or wrong-headed comments and not to reward true insight. And who’s marking the markers? Your approach to WW1 may be learned and knowledgeable, but is there a risk that many of the other markers are as blinkered as those teachers who blandly teach the futility myth?

  2. Posted June 30, 2009 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    Markers give credit to well-written essays that show a mind actively engaging with the text and showing some expertise in handling literary concepts and terminology. We look for quality of insight, not for a particular line of opinion.
    Marking samples are checked by team leaders to make sure that standards are uniform, and up until this year there have been meetings at which markers have examined sample scripts together and discussed them. (For the paper I marked this year, the standardisation meeting was replaced by online standardisation, which was more problematic.)
    For AQA, the board that I have marked for, the emphasis is on the positive reward of students’ work. While we have to make sure that their essays meet the standard, we are expected to use our judgment. At a standardisation meeting (for a different paper) last year, a very good essay was awarded full marks. I pointed out that it did not quite fulfil one of the set criteria, but was told that the overall level of insight was more important than box-ticking. Which seems right to me.
    Do many of the markers hold to the ‘futility’ interpretation as firmly as most teachers? Since most of the markers belong to that community of teachers – yes, probably. And I think that’s fine so long as they give fullest credit to answers showing awareness that human responses to the war were complex and various.

    • The Shadow
      Posted July 3, 2009 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

      I can recall nearly getting into a fight with a teacher over an argument over WWI. I had dared to suggest that the war might have been justified, and was greeted at first with disbelief and then with naked anger. By daring to disagree with his view of the war, I seemed to be cutting at one of his most treasured beliefs.

  3. Alan Allport
    Posted July 8, 2009 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    So from the evidence you’ve seen, is there a single British schoolchild today who thinks that the First World War was anything other than a criminal waste of time?

  4. Posted July 8, 2009 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    Not in the 245 scripts that I marked.
    Of course, these were students of English Literature rather than History, and they are strongly influenced by the choice of texts that they have studied. They have to study one of three poetry anthologies, of which the most popular is ‘Up the Line to Death’, a book that contains many excellent poems, but arranges them in a narrative sequence representing a soldier’s journey from naive patriotic enthusiasm to disillusion. The next most popular is ‘Scars on my Heart’ an anthology of women’s poetry that is very strong on grieving and loss, but conveys little idea of the actualities of war. Least popular is the WW1 section of John Stallworthy’s Oxford Book of War Poetry, which contains some oddball choices, including translations and a mean-spirited reply to Housman by Hugh McDiarmid, inserted quite out of chronological order.
    Apart from that, they are expected to read widely around the subject, in the three genres of poetry, prose and drama. Most follow their teachers’ choices, which very much follow the ‘futility’ theme. The most popular novels are ‘Birdsong’ and ‘Regeneration’. Drama is usually covered by ‘Oh What a Lovely War’, ‘Journey’s End’ and ‘The Accrington Pals’. oh, and ‘Blackadder’, which weaker candidates write about as though it were the unvarnished truth.
    As I marked, I longed for a student who had read Buchan’s ‘Greenmantle’, or Philip Macdonald’s ‘Patrol’, or Rose Macaulay’s ‘Potterism’, or Maugham’s ‘Ashenden’ – or better still his ‘Home and Beauty’. The only critical text quoted by anyone in my batch was Paul Fussell’s ‘Great War and Modern Memory’. A book worth reading, but not the only way of looking at the War.

    • Alan Allport
      Posted July 8, 2009 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

      The only critical text quoted by anyone in my batch was Paul Fussell’s ‘Great War and Modern Memory’. A book worth reading, but not the only way of looking at the War.

      A great book, but very problematic as a historical guide – especially if it’s the only historical guide being presented. I suppose it’s unlikely that many teachers have read the criticism of Fussell’s sometimes slapdash approach to fact (Trevor Wilson and Robin Prior, “Paul Fussell at War” _War in History_, 1994, vol. 1, no. 1.)

  5. Posted July 8, 2009 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    Good point. Maybe I’ll put a few excerpts from the Wilson and Prior article on this blog, in the hope that bright kids might find them, and ask their teachers a few awkward questions.

  6. Posted July 9, 2009 at 6:31 am | Permalink

    A couple of comments back I suggested some less orthodox WW1 fiction that might challenge students’ and teachers’ fixed notions.
    One I should have included in the list is Arnold Bennett’s marvellous novel of wartime London, ‘The Pretty Lady’. There is a fine new edition just published, with a good introduction by John Shapcott of the Arnold Bennett Society.

  7. Anonymous
    Posted January 6, 2011 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    I am an English student resitting the wider reading paper next week. These comments were shocking to say the least, but I have suspected for some time that the texts that have been given to me by my English teacher were perhaps not conveying a fair view of The Great War, but building more on this ‘Futilty’. Thank you, these comments and blog were very helpful.:)

  8. Dolly
    Posted March 31, 2011 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

    I am a student taking my English exam this may. This has been an absolute eye opener for me. I had always found it rather pointless referring to Blackadder in my exams as it was written in the 1980’s and possess a satirical stance throughout. The only other drama text I have read is ‘Journeys End’ and I was wondering if you could recommend any short but powerful plays I could read before Easter. Furthermore are there any essential tips you could give me to help with my exam? That would be very much appreciated. Thank you

  9. Posted April 1, 2011 at 6:03 am | Permalink

    Good questions, Dolly.

    There are some good plays, but not many are in print.

    One that would suit you very well is “Black ‘Ell” (1916) by Miles Malleson.
    It shows the breakdown of a soldier returned from the War, and contrasts his despair with the ignorance of civilians. It’s a powerful piece, published during the War, but not performed until the 1920s. Copies of it were confiscated from the publisher’s by the authorities, which led to questions asked in parliament.

    You can find reasonably-priced modern reprints on Amazon at:

    I’m going away on holiday today – but when I return I’ll write a post giving some more general tips about the exam.

  10. Sarah Clements
    Posted April 1, 2011 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    Firstly, thank you for spending your time writing this because it’s been an enormous help. But I do have one question, in general do examiners prefer those who use less common wider reading links or does it not matter as much?

    Thank you.

  11. Harry
    Posted April 3, 2011 at 12:11 am | Permalink

    “Copies of it were confiscated from the publisher’s by the authorities”
    Just quietly suppress…

  12. Lizzie
    Posted April 18, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    This website has been such a revelation – thank you for all the time and effort you’ve put into it. I’m also sitting the WW1 AS level paper in May, and doing my studies through a distance learning course. I last sat A-levels over 20 years ago, and your blog has been more inspiring than my online teacher! I would also love some exam advice when you have a moment. Black ‘ell was a great recommendation, and I’ve really enjoyed your observations challenging the “lazy” teaching that seems to be going on (eg the futility arguement, and lack of historical background). If you get a chance to see the latest stage production of Journey’s End that’s currently touring the country I encourage all to see it. The most powerful ending to a play I’ve ever seen, which had plenty of grown men weeping publicly at my local theatre….

  13. Posted April 18, 2011 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll try to catch that “Journey’s End” production.
    Meanwhile, I’ve found that the 1930 film of “Journey’s End” is available here:
    I’ve not used this store, but the film is well worth seeing. The director is James Whale, who directed the original London production, so it is pretty faithful to the original text. (Whale later went on to direct the Boris Karloff Frankenstein films.)
    If the version they are selling at Scooter films is anything like the one I found on Ebay a few years back, the sound will not be brilliant, but the quality of the film still comes through.

  14. A Level Teacher
    Posted May 8, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Black ‘ell is available free online: http://www.archive.org/details/blackellwarplayi00mallrich
    A quick and easy read, and a useful comparison to Journey’s End.

  15. Richard Price
    Posted March 26, 2013 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    Thank you very much for putting your time and effort into writing this and replying to peoples questions and comments. It’s evident it has helped a lot of people, including myself.

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