War Cemeteries and young people

Tyne Cot War Cemetery, Belgium

Tyne Cot War Cemetery, Belgium

I was having a bit of a browse on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Website earlier today, and happened upon their excellent Respect micro-site, aimed at helping school parties gain the most out of their visits to War Cemeteries.

I was, however, shocked and disappointed to read a set of correspondence reproduced from the Bulletin of the Western Front Association. Now, I’m someone who was worked with young people before, and dealt with some bigoted and old-fashioned attitudes. But to read someone inferring a snobbery about visiting War Cemeteries is very sad indeed. I’ve written before about how these ridiculous arguments that ‘years ago everyone was respectful, now young people are yobs, its the end of the world as we know it’ are based on nothing more than prejudice.

I want to share an experience that I had visiting a War Cemetery as a young person. On a school trip to Arnhem in Holland, we were not even due to visit the Cemetery or the Museum. But when I told the teacher in charge that my Granddad had fought at Arnhem, the itinerary was changed. We went to the Museum. Now, initially this didn’t go down too well with most of the other people on the coach – not a bloody Museum! But when we got off the coach, one of the teachers stood everyone around, and explained about the Battle, and about my Granddad, and how important it was that we pay our respects. You could have heard a pin drop. I’ve never seen a group of kids so attentive in a Museum. At the end, some of the younger kids were even buying me things from the shop, and one even talked about how they wanted to join the Parachute Regiment. Then on to the Cemetery, everyone got off, and walked round the Cemetery in little groups, talking about the names, the ages, the fact that one of the graves had a Jewish Star of David on it. It was an incredible experience.

Make no mistake, this was a bunch of kids from what was at the time one of the worst schools in the country. Only months earlier the local bus company had banned Pupils in school uniform from getting on their buses. Yet this group, which included some of the most hardened tough-nuts in the school, behaved impeccably at Arnhem. What amazes me, looking back, is that the young people who were most interested and most respectful, were the ones who would have played up the most in the classroom. The were exactly the kind of young people who might have found themselves jumping out of Dakotas over Ginkel Heath. Yet if the gentleman in the article had his way, they wouldn’t have visited the Cemetery at all.

What does that teach us? Certainly it cautions us against assuming that all young people care not a jot for battlefield heritage. And also, that it is not only the public schoolkids that have respect for national heritage, but it is there in all young people too – it is just a case of finding it. It takes a more informal, young-people focussed aproach to do this. The National Curriculum has resulted in a ‘lost generation’ who have been spoonfeed turgid and mindnumbing versions of history. This is not their fault, yet it is a worrying trend that needs addressing.

As someone who has sat in a fair number of History lessons, I am the first to admit that it is one of the most uninspiring subjects when taught in a classroom, particularly if the teacher is lacking in dynamism. But take that same group of young people out for a walk round the battlefield, and to the Museums and the Cemeteries, and see how different they react.

The snobbery of suggesting that only a ‘genuine kind of pilgrim’ should visit war cemeteries is ludicrous. Like, only the ‘right kind of chap’ should be allowed to join a certain regiment. The many thousands of British and Commonwealth men buried in France and Belgium came from all walks of life, some of them were no doubt ‘genuine kinds of soldiers’ and some were surely rogues too. That is human nature. But they all paid the ultimate sacrifice all the same, a bullet neither knows nor cares whom it is killing. To suggest that some people are more worthy to visit War Cemeteries should be anathema for anyone with an interest in military history. If I found myself thinking like that, I would be ashamed.

It is so very important that we engage meaningfully with young people around wars and conflict. I feel that the real growth area for this is in informal learning projects, such as the Discovering D-Day Project ongoing at the D-Day Museum in Portsmouth, and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s recent project on footballers in war. These kinds of projects meet young people on their level, rather than expecting them to subscribe to outdated ideas of learning.

So, instead of bleating on about young people, which is hardly helping matters, why not get involved and do something to help matters? Its no use moaning about something if you’re not prepared to make a difference yourself. I don’t mind people being critical, as long as they are constructive about it too.

It astounds me that there are military history enthusiasts out there who profess to have great respect for our war dead, yet in another breath talk about young people as ‘teenaged morons’.

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