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.