How the First World War is taught


The recent controversy about how schoolchildren are taught about World War I has been strong on assertion but light on factual evidence.

The excellent World War I in the Classroom group  will soon be publishing the results of their large-scale survey about the teaching of the subject, and that should tell us much.

While we’re waiting, I can’t say much about what History teachers tell their students, but I thought I’d offer a snapshot of how the literature of the War is taught in many AS-level classes, by looking at a textbook ‘exclusively authorised’ by the AQA exam board. It is  AQA English Literature A: Literature of World War One, by Stella Canwell, who has authored or co-authored several books in the Nelson Thornes series which advertises itself on the back cover in these terms:

Developed with and exclusively endorsed by AQA, this is the only series to provide teachers with complete reassurance that they have everything they need to deliver AQA’s new A level English Literature.

(I marked the AQA WW1 AS-level papers for three years, and this textbook reminds me why I stopped.)
The book is attractively presented and clearly written and contains a good deal of sensible advice about how to tackle exam questions. It would therefore be very useful to students who wanted to know exactly what the AS-level exam demanded of them.

What is much more questionable is the picture of the War, and of its literature, that comes through the selection of texts (poems and extracts from novels, plays and non-fiction) that are offered for analysis, and which form the main body of the book.

The first two poems in the book are presented as typical of Victorian and Edwardian poetry about war and conflict. They are ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ and Newbolt’s ‘Vitai Lampada (‘There’s a breathless hush in the close tonight…’). Stella Canwell’s comments on these very reasonably nudge the reader into noting their idealism, which will also be seen in the next exhibit, Brooke’s ‘The Dead’, and contrasted with the realism of the trench poetry that came later.
This is fair enough – if you accept a certain interpretation of Great War literature (what one might in shorthand call the Paul Fussell view) that the horror of the War shocked soldier-writers out of idealism, and that the only valuable war literature was the realistic writing that reflected that shock .
But other readings of literary history are possible. The effect would have been very different had Stella Canwell chosen, instead of Newbolt’s bit of public-school nonsense, one of Kipling’s tough-minded Boer War poems, like ‘Stellenbosh’, as caustic about the high command as any First World War poem:

The General got ’is decorations thick
(The men that backed ’is lies could not complain),
The Staff ’ad D.S.O.’s till we was sick,
An’ the soldier —’ad the work to do again!

Equally she could have given one or two of the Georgian poems (by Masefield or Davies, maybe) whose sensitivity to the suffering of ordinary lives and whose use of colloquial language provided an example taken up by many of the war poets. This would have offered a very different interpretation of war poetry – not that the soldier-poets reacting against an outmoded way of looking at war, and making a new one, but that they were building on pre-existing poetic examples. (This idea would be no more complex than Stella Canwell’s for an AS-level student to understand.)
When it comes to the extracts of actual wartime literature that the book offers, there is a distinct pattern, and once again it follows the line about Great War literature most clearly stated by Paul Fussell. The majority of the pieces here depict soldiers as suffering victims, and many, explicitly or indirectly, present the war as futile and meaningless. Some show civilians enthusiastic for war, but only two show a soldier eager to fight. War enthusiasm appears in the extracts as a craze; none of the passages indicate that there might have been significant reasons for going to war, or that those who approved of the war had any motivation beyond a generalised patriotism. Why did thoughtful, sane and responsible men volunteer to fight? You will find no inkling of an answer here. Those on the Home Front are presented as either deluded or suffering; several pieces show women mourning for their men.
Several extracts depict military failures or fiascos; none presents a military success. Only a few pieces mention senior officers; in an H.G.Wells extract, they are ‘not very competent’, and suffering from ‘imaginative insufficiency’. A scene from Oh What A Lovely War caricatures Haig as indifferent and stupid. No senior officer in the whole collection is shown as behaving efficiently, or with any care for his troops. Junior officers fare little better. There are extracts that show soldiers shaken by the loss of friends, but none that show the solidarity of comradeship that helped to make the war bearable for many. There are no mentions of the technical innovations of the War, such as tanks. The Royal Flying Corps does not put in an appearance.
All of the extracts describing war zones are set on the Western Front. There is nothing from Gallipoli or the Middle East, and nothing from Africa. Not one of the pieces deals with the Navy. One piece is translated from French and one from German, and there is one extract from an American, Mary Borden. There are no pieces mentioning Canadian troops, or ANZACS, or South Africans. There is no mention of the million and a half Indian troops who fought in the War. (Mulk Raj Anand’s Across the Black Waters would have been a useful source here.)
None of the extracts are actually unsuitable as subjects for commentary practice, even the snippet from a Blackadder script that is included. The problem is that this textbook (whether deliberately or because of the writer’s unconscious preferences, or her sense that the Great War canon is restricted to the literature of protest and realism) provides a very lop-sided view of the War. Students could finish a year of study without realising how worldwide the conflict was, and certainly with no idea of how Britain and her allies won the War. (From my time as an exam marker, I gathered that some candidates did not even know that this country DID win the war; they confidently assert that all the British battles were military disasters.)
Does this matter particularly? Well, this textbook is influential; all markers for the exam will be very used to mentions of the extracts printed here, as examples of the candidate’s ‘wider reading’. Sometimes one suspects that these extracts are just about the only wider reading that a candidate has done, and very often candidates make assertions about the whole book based on the page or two included here; I remember one candidate telling me that Ernest Raymond’s Tell England takes a very cheerful view of the War.
Not that one should blame Stella Canwell alone for the shortcomings of this collection of extracts. She prints the AQA reading list of suggested wider-reading texts for students, and the tone of her selection is an accurate enough reflection of the tone of the whole list. (And I’ve just noticed that Allison and Fairley’s deeply unreliable The Monocled Mutineer is one of the eight ‘History and Testimony’ books that candidates are invited to take a look at).
I gave up marking a couple of years ago, when my moderator insisted that a script full of factual errors was worth a highish mark. (‘But that’s how she’s been taught!’ he said plaintively.) When I saw a copy of this student’s handbook offered very cheaply second-hand recently, I bought it for old-times’s sake, and out of curiosity. It has saddened me.
I feel that candidates are being short-changed. There is a war literature beyond the narrow emotional range included in this collection, and study of it would be challenging and rewarding. They must get pretty bored spending a whole year with futility.


  1. Alan Allport
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps one way to proceed would be to stop teaching the literature of the First World War in isolation, and introduce some of the poetry and prose of the war that followed. The Second World War has its own myths, of course, but they are very different from those of 1914-1918, and it might be creatively provocative for those two myths to come into conflict in the classroom. I wonder how Sassoon and Grave’s poetry would be interpreted if it was compared and contrasted with, say, Keith Douglas’, or Alun Lewis’? Or Waugh’s prose accounts of the Crete campaign?

    • Posted January 21, 2014 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

      Or literature of three wars: Boer, WW1 and WWII. It would make a good contrasting course.

    • Alan Allport
      Posted January 21, 2014 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

      BTW, for ‘Grave’s’ (sic) above, read ‘Owen’s’. Getting my canonical martyrs mixed up.

  2. frogprof12
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    I taught an introductory course in “Literature of the World Wars” about 10 years ago in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas at the U. of Texas-Pan Am. On the first day of class, I asked my students, “When did WWI begin?” Mostly blank looks, and then one student [who was an Army veteran, as it turned out] said hesitantly, “1945?”
    *bangs head on desk*
    How these kids ever got into “college” [although it has to be said that PanAm is more like extended high school] is beyond me. The Canwell book would probably go over very well on this side of The Pond too.

  3. Bill
    Posted January 23, 2014 at 12:51 am | Permalink

    It is, of course, a literature course and not a history one. Text books tend to be written to the set texts and the specified reading. I am never quite clear why it is apparently necessary to put WW1 literature in an accurate historical context, when no-one would expect much attention to be paid to the purpose of the Crimean War in studying the Tennyson poem or the merits and justification of the Mahdist war (or the colourful exploits of Fred Burnaby) in reading Newbolt. What is notable is that the WW1 option seems by far the easiest of the three options within the course, which probably explains its popularity. In my day, towards which I am told we are seeking to return, you got marked down for putting too much history into literature answers (Leavisite influences, I suspect), especially if you were dealing with Shakespeare, whose historical accuracy is non-existent. It may sometimes disappoint people that most war literature is about defeat and disaster (from The Gododdin and The Battle of Maldon onwards), but the best English writers seem to have rarely chosen to celebrate successful slaughter.

    • Posted January 23, 2014 at 11:06 am | Permalink

      The problem with this AQA course is that in it literature and history get confused. A high-mark exam question asks for a commentary on a piece of non-fictional prose about the War, which students are expected to put into a literary and historical context. However, the material offered to the student to understand this context is very limited and partial.
      I listed topics omitted from the coursebook not to suggest that all should be dealt with, but to ask why none of them were. This is a very narrow view of the War. (Not necessarily a left-wing view, but a sentimental one, in that it can only see the pathos, and does not look beyond it).
      The exam board’s recommended reading list is an odd one – and I note that at least one very poor history book (‘The Monocled Mutineer’) and one ludicrously silly novel (Ben Elton’s ‘The First Casualty’) are still included in the new reading-list offered to candidates from 1914 onwards.
      Of the gaps in the reading list, the largest for me is the total absence of Kipling, a towering presence in the literature of the time, who wrote about the War in both verse and fiction, and in non-fictional prose such as his history of the Irish Guards (which would be an excellent source for examiners looking for passages for commentary). A reading of ‘Mary Postgate’, that deeply unsettling story of the Home Front, would be well worth the time of any AS-level student of literature.

  4. Bill
    Posted January 23, 2014 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

    I agree the reading list contains some rubbish, but was surprised how wide it was. Whether the remains of the library service can provide any, I don’t know. Kipling’s poetry will be there, but the stories are less likely. I agree that “Mary Postgate” would be worth the time and provoke interesting consideration of the place of hatred of an “enemy” (is the airman even German or is that just her assumption?). Does the course penalise reference to texts not on the “wider reading” list? It must be difficult to teach Kipling to a modern multi-ethnic class. I wonder how “Fuzzy Wuzzy” would be approached by children of Sudanese background (or more worryingly by their classmates of different backgrounds). How the War is taught in other parts of the world must be fascinating. I read that the only compulsory content in German schools was the Treaty of Versailles. Polish schools presumably celebrate the recreation of their nation. And Belgian schools ignore the topic (if their Miss World candidate is a typical product), despite their central role in the conflict.

  5. Jon Lighter
    Posted January 26, 2014 at 2:08 am | Permalink

    Much of the problem is having to simplify. And literature is harder to simplify than history. (Historians can at least agree on *what* happened, even if they’re not sure what it means; while literary critics often don’t agree on the meaning of the words on a page.)

    Fussell’s reductive theory of Great War poetry caught on because it’s so simple: the Somme changed everything, including language. Anyone can remember that!

    But it was the individual genius of a number of poets – influenced by both a nascent modernism and a resurgent tradition of realism going back to the Iliad – that “changed everything.”

    • Bill
      Posted January 26, 2014 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

      Frankly, A-levels are rotten courses (and exams) for trying to encourage or demonstrate any form of nuanced approach. I think literature is, in fact, much easier to “simplify” than history, by directing or encouraging a particular “reading”. In history, there is almost an obligation to insert a few “on the other hand”s, whereas, with literature, the ability to justify the selected viewpoint from the text(s) is often enough. And as George says, the sentimental viewpoint needs little encouragement, especially within that age-group, and current culture.

      Fussell is a different matter, and less reductive than you suggest. TGWAMM remains a marvellous book, even if wrong in several of its assessments. But as with all texts, it is a product of its time and place. And I suspect it couldn’t have been written by a British scholar.

      • Posted January 26, 2014 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

        Fussell is certainly less reductive than the exam book, and remains a book worth reading. In its time the book opened up new ways of thinking about war literature (because of PF’s own WW2 experience, and the gruelling Vietnam war being fought while he wrote). No, British scholars, unaffected by Vietnam, would not have written a book like this.
        But he says himself in his intro to the later edition that he wrote about WW1 as a way of dealing with his own time as a soldier. This makes the book interesting, but it also makes him bend the history, and the literary history, to fit his thesis.

  6. Bill
    Posted January 28, 2014 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    Clearly, dealing with his own war experience was what led Fussell away from his established area of reputation and expertise into Great War studies, where he could be something of an outsider. (For Americans, after all, WW1 is a relatively minor episode in between the US Civil War and WW2). But there are undoubtedly problems in his privileging of the words and experience of those who have actually fought over all others, the process that James Campbell dubbed ‘combat gnosticism’. Of course, it is a view common amongst old soldiers, many of whom, like Fussell, distinguish even within active service, dismissing those who were not, say, “under fire”. With Fussell, there are times when he seems to dismiss the validity of the words and opinions of anyone who has not taken part in “close combat infantry action”. These days, happily, I doubt you could find a single Anglophone scholar who would meet that exacting qualification.

    • Bill
      Posted January 28, 2014 at 10:36 am | Permalink

      Although, looking over a Fussell interview, it isn’t just “these days” :

      – For example, in my experience at universities, which dates from 1951, I have met only two faculty colleagues who fought in dangerous branches of the service. But except for that everyone else seems to have slid into some sort of intellectual position that made it unlikely that they’d be deeply damaged. I met no one who had been in the infantry.

      • Jon Lighter
        Posted January 29, 2014 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

        TGWAMM seems to assert that the worthwhile British writing about the war came from innocent aesthetes (minds originally shackled by the Oxford anthology of poetry), led by cruel military and civilian donkeys in an inexplicable war of no sensible purpose.

        Even on such limited terms, Sassoon’s and Owen’s voluntary return to combat tends to undermine that theme (but perhaps they were fooled too…). Fussell also discovers every important action to be thwarted by a more-than-equal, fatally ironic reaction, which then becomes its ultimate meaning. The Somme thus becomes not just a convenient symbol of the Western Front but an encapsulation of the whole war’s significance – which appears to be utter futility.

        Joe Sacco’s new, media-recommended cartoon panorama of the battle – its title is “The Great War” – makes that idea even more explicit.

    • Anonymous
      Posted January 30, 2014 at 9:34 am | Permalink

      Ironically enough, that is a fairly reductive reading of Fussell, even if it were wholly accurate. It is certainly true that he suggests that (any?) war creates a dominant ironic discourse and that WW1 was a major cultural watershed, after which British culture and literary language was never the same. And, of course, he situates the debating ground in “memory” and not in “history”. For himself, Fussell is clear that the irony is a protective attempt and it is interesting that he seems closest to the survivor poets, rather than the dead ones, like Owen. (I think perhaps Blunden is his favourite, even though he is probably the worst example to illustrate the alleged “thesis”).

      As for Sacco, he is essentially a graphic war reporter, and says he could only work from something very real and specific, so chose the first day of the Somme (which many others have also accepted as a significant point in the war).

      If the first day of the Somme, and perhaps the whole war (perhaps every war) is widely remembered as a symbol of futility it isn’t Joe Sacco’s fault (he was brought up on celebrations of ANZAC day) or even Ben Elton’s fault. Or Paul Fussell’s.

  7. Jon Lighter
    Posted January 30, 2014 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

    Hardly a question of “fault,” though the influence of TGWAMM on critics and educators for nearly forty years has been great, as we all seem to recognize.

    And, of course, Fussell says more in 350 closely printed pages than one can fully critique in a few words – as interesting as a full critique would be.

Post a Comment

%d bloggers like this: