Tag Archives: youth

Arnhem: Tour of Duty

The Airborne Cemetery in Oosterbeek, Arnhem.

The Airborne Cemetery at Oosterbeek (Image via Wikipedia)

I’ve just finished watching the second and final part of this very interesting programme, taking a group of young people from Croydon and training them as 1940’s Paras. The programme culminated in parachute jump from a C-47 Dakota over Arnhem during the annual anniversary celebrations. My, how I wish I was ‘young’ again!

My impressions are that it was a very well put together and well thought out programme. Staffed by ex-Paras and youth workers – an interesting combination! – the young people were put through a taster of the physical training required to join the 1940’s Parachute Regiment. Some of the kids found the physical training pretty hard – are we softer nowadays?… answers on a postcard. Modern day favourites such as the log race were in evidence. The kids were also taken out on a mock exercise with re-enactors, but unbeknown to them a group of German re-enactors had set up an ambush, very similar to the kind that might have taken place in Arnhem during September 1944.

We also got an insight into the social problems of being young nowadays, when three were sent home for sniffing aerosols. Obviously pretty stupid and dangerous, not to mention wasting an opportunity of a lifetime. But then again, whilst the 60’s generation thought they were ‘expanding their minds’ on LSD and speed and god knows what else, their parents during the war had probably taken far more Benzedrene in the course of duty. The programme makers also made a decent effort to get the kids to wear contemporary uniforms, eat contemporary foods, and such like.

The parachute training was also fascinating. Some of the kids in particular had trouble getting to grips with the parachute landing – feet and knees together, roll etc (I can remember my Grandad telling me that!). Their trip to Brize Norton in particular was an eye-opener – jumping out of a mock-up fuselage, and from the old-style fan, which would have been familiar to second world war Paras. No barrage balloon jumps, however! Most of the kids seem to have taken the parachuting side of the programme well in their stride.

On the whole, this was a very grood programme, and exactly the kind of living history that brings teaching to life and really enthuses young people. I wasn’t too sure about the reality TV feel, how when individuals had to leave for various reasons it had the feel of Big Brother and being evicted.

The veterans accounts were very moving, however. But most of all I found the ending of the programme very touching – the young lads sharing a pint with some of the veterans at the crossroads, and placing flowers on the graves in the Airborne Cemetery in Oosterbeek. It really seemed to me like the young people ‘got’ the spirit of the programme. I hope all the nay-sayers are happy.

Arnhem: Tour of Duty can be watched on the Channel 5 website

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Arnhem: Tour of Duty on Channel 5

This is quite an interesting one. Channel 5 have got together a group of young people from Croydon, South London and put them through the training process to take part in a re-enactment of the Battle of Arnhem.

Now first of all, I’ve read some pretty sniffy comments about this, from people purporting to be military history experts. I might claim to have more of a personal stake in what this programme is about, as my late Grandfather was an Arnhem veteran. To me what happened at Arnhem in September 1944 is not just history or something I’m interested in, its part of my family, and by default, who I am. It would be so easy for me to knock it, but I can’t and I won’t. Because its something I would love to have done myself, and I think its a great way of teaching military history in a fun way. Fun learning = good learning. It sounds very well put-together, with ex-Paras working alongside youth workers.

Of course no TV programme is ever going to fully recreate the intensity, the danger and the courage of a Battle like Arnhem, how could it ever? But that doesn’t mean its not worth a try. As a result of this programme there will be a bunch of young people from Britain who will know more about Arnhem than they did before they started. And how, exactly, is that a bad thing? It’s their history too and they are entitled to learn about it. And not just from books, but from really getting out there and getting to grips with what made those men so special. I remember watching a similar programme about the D-Day Landings, which involved D-Day veterans, and that worked quite well.

Dismissing it as cheap reality TV is in itself a pretty cheap shot. I’ve got no time for snobby put-downs, they’re not big and they’re not clever. It reminds me of the supposed Great War enthusiast who moaned about the amount of school groups visiting the Western Front, complaining that it was turning into a theme park – is this guy for real?! Porbably the same kind of person who would moan about young people not having enough respect for history.

Lets watch the programme with an open mind and see how it works. I’m looking forward to it.

Arnhem: Tour of duty is on Channel 5 on Wednesday 10 and Thursday 11 November at 8pm each day.

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Education and Military History

I’ve always been mystified about the near total exclusion of military history from history teaching in schools. I’ve never managed to work out exactly where it comes from, but my guess is that somewhere along the lines a liberal assumption took hold that teaching young people about wars and fighting would encourage them to fight each other. Bizarre, in the least. But so it remained for some time. And especially while I was at school – we only learnt about wars though abstract means – in medicine through time, for example, we learnt how wars speed-up medical advances. Even then, the emphasis was on ‘progress’.

But I have noticed something of a shift in recent years. Perhaps it is the passing of the last WW1 veterans, and the ever-decreasing number of WW2 veterans, that has brought home to society that when participants pass on, memory becomes history. I also suspect that the high profile wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have changed how people think about the armed forces and war.

There have been great changes in Education too. Its no longer enough to simply visit a museum and herd kids round. Many museums offer more focused workshop sessions. HMS Belfast even lets school groups sleep onboard overnight for the ‘at sea’ experience. Its important to constantly look for new and interesting ways of engaging young people. I spent some time working with groups of young people in an informal setting, and I really think that approach works for military history. No ‘this is what you will learn, blah blah…’ – it has to be enjoyable and interesting, and relevant to the people you are trying to teach. If you enjoy yourself, you are more receptive, whereas if you feel you are being lectured against your will, you subconsciously put up barriers. I’ve always thought that history should be taught out and about, and using objects, clothes, and other ‘hooks’.

One of the best education projects I have come across is the Discovering D-Day Project. OK, I might be a bit biased, as I work for the Service that runs the D-Day Museum. But I have been so impressed with some of the work that the project has brought out. The project involves tailored study days at the D-Day Museum for schools and youth groups, an opportunity to meet WW2 veterans, handling WW2 related objects, and using mobile phone technology to take photographs. The sessions can be based on History, Maths or English, for example. All of the evidence suggests that it has been a major success. It’s helped the Museum attract a completely new age range – in particular teenagers.

Take a look at some of these quotes:

‘I enjoyed today because it was fun and enjoyable to see these things instead of having to read from the books that are provided in schools. You get to see from the veterans’ side what it was like. Amazing trip!’ – Year 10 pupil

‘[The students]… enjoyed talking to the veterans so much they chose to talk to them through lunch!’ – Key Stage 4 Teacher

‘Pupils who have participated in the project have articulated its success with insight, commenting on how they had been inspired to work harder, to reach targets and to see themselves as independent learners preparing for a world beyond school.’ – Claire Austin-Macrae Regional Adviser (Functional Skills)

I cannot help but be impressed by the group of young people who wanted to skip lunch so they could keep talking to the veterans. And not only do the sessions seem to have been fun, but there have been some major improvements in grades, in particular with young people who were previously underachieving. I can remember watching a veteran give a reading of a Poem written by a School pupil, from the perspective of a soldier landing on D-Day. Very moving, and exactly the kind of thing education and military should be about.

And its not just school groups either – some of the youth groups who have taken part have produced some artwork that I would be perfectly happy to use as publicity images or book covers.

Just one example of how to ‘do’ military history with young people.

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are we soft?

I can well remember our first lecture in one of our first units studying History at University. In ‘early modern Europe – a different world?’ the whole thrust of the lecture was to encourage us not to see times gone by through our modern perspective, but to try and think about how life was fundamentally different.

And that point has stuck with me very clearly since then. For example, when was the last time the average person walked ten miles a day? or ate something that they grew or reared themselves? or built something? or found their way round a strange town without getting lost? How many people could survive out in the countryside for a couple of days with no food? Yet these were all things that people not so long ago had to do every day in some cases.

There’s no doubt about it: we’re soft. People moan nowadays if they dont get exactly what they want for tea, or if they have to walk somewhere, or if the bus is 2 minutes late. We have helpdesks and helplines for everything. Don’t worry about doing something yourself, get someone else to do it for you! If you dont feel like working, you can always find a way to scive off. Technology and science may have improved our lives in some sense, but in others, its made us soft and lazy. Hard work surely had its benefits. Very few working people would have been overweight. Firstly, because they simply did not have enough food to gorge themselves, and what they had was not loaded with fats or sugar. And secondly, they would have worked it off. Medieval Archers were much fitter and healthier than we are today, due to their demmanding exercise and more sensible diet and lifestyle.

But at the same time I don’t want to fall into the ‘youth of today’ trap. OK, there are some little toerags out there, but its not just young people. But one major difference is, at least people nowadays are honest. In years gone by if someone had a child out of wedlock, they either vanished, or hurriedly married someone, or the child became their ‘sister’. Paedophiles and abusers who were in positions of authority, say priests or councillors, got away with it due to their position. At least people have no heirs or graces now, which is at least refreshing.

But it is very worrying that on the whole, people are much softer than ever. And that peoples ideas of what constitutes a hero are so warped. Everyone knows who Katie Price and Cheryl Cole are, but compare them to Guy Gibson and Robert Cain. And some of the concepts of ‘respect’ that get bandied about are plain wrong. Shooting someone for supposedly ‘dissing’ you is not respectful. And nothing is killing someone for going against your wishes honourable ‘honourable’.

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