Literature is needed in WW1 history lessons

Students must study literature, not just facts and figures, to understand that the war was fought by people just like them, according to a teenage blogger.

Writing on a teen book club site, alannahbee states that she only had a few lessons on the First World War during the ‘dark days’ of year nine, but that she and her fellow pupils managed to extract ‘sparse and juiceless facts’.

Classroom discussions were based on facts and figures, but what she missed was what the curriculum failed to include: “…the fear a boy of 16 might have felt, ascending into no man’s land, when he should have been playing cricket on the village green back home; the unparalleled grief that mothers and wives and sisters would face from the few words borne in a letter; that a man they knew and loved was dead; how the innocence and youth of an entire generation was stolen in the dead of night. Here lies human emotion, amongst political negotiation and military strategy.”

Alannah wants the curriculum to open up and let in the “glow of human experience” through fiction, real-life accounts and diaries. “If we want to understand the big stuff, we have to think small: look at the individual stories, so insignificant at first glance,” she writes. She would like pupils to study a range of literature, from contemporary works like Valentine Joe by Rebecca Stevens and Stay Where You Are and Then Leave by John Boyne to the poems of war poets Wilfrid Owens and Siegfried Sassoon.

She recognises that although WW1 is no longer a living memory, it is “woven into the culture of our modern world”, and writes that literature is vital to understand its magnitude. But studying the war is important for a less obvious reason: “Reading about human experience, from ambulance drivers to conscientious objectors, gives us a great deal of empathy, too. And we must have empathy, if we have nothing else left.”

Do you agree with Alannahbee’s claim that facts and figures aren’t enough, and that pupils need literature to truly understand WW1?


3 thoughts on “Literature is needed in WW1 history lessons

  1. This is a very valid point. As part of its HLF funded project ‘To Journey’s End and Beyond’ which will preserve the papers and writings of ‘Journey’s End’ author RC Sherriff, Surrey Heritage is organising Secondary school workshops using Sherriff’s own letters home from the trenches to help students understand his experiences. ‘Journey’s End’ is probably the most famous contemporary First World War play and Sherriff wrote it using the letters he sent and received to and from his friends and family; these letters give a unique insight into his thoughts, feelings and actions during the Great War. Starting this Autumn term, students will have the opportunity to create a film installation that explores the experiences of life in the trenches, using Sherriff’s original letters/archive materials and filmed interviews, combined with creative writing from the students themselves.

    The project has also produced a newly created drama based on Sherriff experiences which has just had its first rehearsed reading by Kingston Grammar School students – Sherriff attended this school and students have a connection to both him and his archive, which is held at Surrey History Centre in Woking. The new drama will have a fully produced performance in 2015.

    Finally, the HLF funding will allow Surrey Heritage to create a free online educational resource, which focuses on Sherriff’s letters and ‘Journey’s End’, available to all teachers, and students. This will be online later in 2015.

    The RC Sherriff Project website is This also links to the fortnightly blog which reveals treasures from the Sherriff archives and discussions on Sherriff’s life and experiences.

    Di Stiff, Collections Development Archivist
    Surrey History Centre

  2. I am afraid that the facts/figures regarding WW1 are very important and the reasons as to why Europe went to war are also extremely relevant if we want to have a valid understanding in order to learn from the past and not repeat such mistakes. Once these relevant facts are studied and understood then by all means read and learn about the personal stories etc. You cannot ignore the facts which is why history is taught so badly today where intellectual rigour is lacking together with an understanding of the facts; instead students are entertained rather than challenged by the real history of WW1.

  3. We do that in Primary Schools. We call it learning about the war. My own children do it. They call it learning about the war. I also did it when I taught in university. We called it learning about the war.

    There is nothing unrigorous about using primary source material critically to understand the past. Neither are people’s feelings irrelevant: they are essential to understanding causation (perhaps more so than ‘fact’, people act on what they believe even if they are wrong).

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