The Great War Remembered

More than 60 million served and more than 16 million died in World War I as the armies of the Triple Entente –Britain, France and the Russian Empire  joined forces against the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary in a “war to end all wars.”  

The Great War (Credit: The Great War 1914-1918 100-Year Remembrance Facebook)

The Great War (Credit: The Great War 1914-1918 100-Year Remembrance Facebook)

That fervent hope failed to materialise however —the Great War was not the war to end wars; it was merely the war to end wars like itself. The lesson learned was not to renounce war, but to wage it more efficiently — and within the short span of two decades a second even more horrendous War engulfed the world wreaking further devastation and millions more deaths.

The Great War had involved major imperial powers which meant the conflict spread all over the world via their colonies drawing in,  as did also World War II, millions of men and women from Africa, the Middle East, the Pacific Islands, China and elsewhere around the globe.

Starting in just six months time and running through to 2018 “The Great War Remembered” or “1418Remembered” joint European project, designed as a remembrance of the centenary of the outbreak of war on 28 July 1914, will roll out in places such as Westhoek in West Flanders, Comines-Warneton in Wallonia, the Nord, Pas-de-Calais, Somme and Aisne departments (Northern France) and elsewhere in the European and other theatres.

Today French News Online introduces a series of occasional articles about the Remembrance and about both World Wars, as a contribution towards ensuring that those who were sacrificed will never be forgotten.

more than 16 million died

    • A list of memorial sites involving both World Wars can be found here on the Historvius website. Battlefields in France can be found here
    • A US-based website  dedicated to “all those from all nations who served in World War I ” is found here
    • A face book page The Great War 1914 – 1918: 100 Year Remembranceis here.
    • Europeana 1914-1918 is collecting material from across Europe and urges readers with pictures, letters, postcards, souvenirs or other items relating to World War I, or a story or anecdote to tell, to add them to the online story collection on this EU-sponsored site.
    • Read an excerpt of the history of the war by British historian AJP Taylor: From Sarajevo to Potsdam here
    • First World War Centenary Facebook page is here
    • PBS (the US Public Broadcasting Service broadcaster) website on the Great War is here

‘I was at the front for thirteen months, and by the end of that time the sharpest perception had become dulled, the greatest words mean. The war had become an everyday affair, life in the line a matter of routine. Instead of heroes there were only victims, conscripts instead of volunteers. Life had become hell, death a bagatelle. We were all of us cogs in a great machine which sometimes rolled forward, nobody knew where, sometimes backwards, nobody knew why. We had lost our enthusiasm, our courage, the very sense of our identity; there was no rhyme or reason in all this slaughtering and devastation; pain itself had lost its meaning; the earth was a barren waste. We used to hack away the rings of unexploded shells out of sheer perversity; only the other day one had blown up two men – but what did that matter?’
Ernst Toller: Eine Jugend in Deutschland (1933)

The official French government website dedicated to the The Great War Remembered puts it this way: “The First World War saw two countries, France and Germany fight each other for four and half years. This experience needs to be explained and commemorated so that the countries can plan a better future together.

“The two peoples shared a bitter hate of each other, which was stoked by a mad desire to fight the other until victory was achieved. Today, they are reconciled and united in the construction of Europe.

“Having shared an antagonism of each other, both French and Germans have a similar experience of war. They both sacrificed their youth. Their soldiers fought in extremely harsh conditions. A unprecedented amount of blood was spilled among French and Germans alike. This common experience needs to be jointly remembered.

“For France and Germany, commemorating the First World War is about more than just reconciliation. It aims to build a future based notably on the younger generations by explaining and remembering the past.” 

Flanders Fields Memorials in1930s (Credit: The Great War 1914-1918 100-Year Remembrance Facebook page)

Flanders Fields Memorials in1930s (Credit: The Great War 1914-1918 100-Year Remembrance Facebook page)

History is a French passion and the teaching of the history of the Great War in French schools — regarded as essential to ensure the memory of those who died in two successive and related wars on French soil, is never forgotten —  follows a long and argumentative path as this research paper shows.

The article is published on the official government website established to remember the centenary of the outbreak of World War I. Here are excerpts:

“History is something the French are passionate about in general as well as teaching at school as can be seen in the debates or even the controversies that have often surrounded it. In most cases these controversies have centered on school course books. Three things which need to be clearly distinguished are often confused: the syllabuses, course books and the reality of teaching in the classroom.

“…The National Board of Education played a major role up until 1989, when a National Syllabus Committee was established, the role of which was to supervise “technical disciplinary groups” made up of university lecturers, professors and inspectors. This Committee progressively disappeared between 2002 and 2004 to be replaced by “groups of experts”, directed by the National Board of Education and comprising high-school teachers, university lecturers and regional educational inspectors who put together the most recent syllabuses for junior and senior schools. These planned syllabuses were submitted to teachers as part of a consultation process before being presented, for comment, to the Higher Committee for Education. The bill for the future law on the reorganisation of Schools includes the return of a “Higher committee for syllabuses.

“In order to help teachers implement the syllabuses, the ministry is providing additional material which were first of all called “official instructions” , then “support documents” and then finally “class work resources”. This change in the terms used for the name given to this extra material is symbolic of the growing concern to respect the pedagogical freedom of teachers.

“As for the course books, they are the sole responsibility of private publishers who compete with one another. They rely on teams consisting essentially of teachers to write them. The publication of these course books, before and after, is independent of the Ministry, in line with editorial freedom which was established at the beginning of the 1880s. Each school through “a teaching committee” made up of all the teachers of the discipline is then free to choose from among the course books. However, in order to be chosen the course books have to comply with the syllabuses, but they are not in themselves the syllabus and they can more or less be free in their expression. It is up to the teachers at each school to make their judgement when together they make their choice.

“They are just one of the instruments available to pupils and teachers alike. Teachers can use other resources which in the digital era are ever more plentiful and they have a pedagogical freedom which leaves them with a lot of room for manoeuver. For this reason it should be pointed out that what happens in the classroom cannot be put down simply to the course books alone.

“It is nevertheless what is contained within them that has sparked various controversies. The controversy concerning the teaching about the Great War at the start of the 2012-2013 school year is an example among others: it was started in Le Figaro in its edition of 27 August 2012 by an article entitled “history course books are forgetting the heroes of the 14-18 war”. The article contained a photo of the Marshall Pétain on horseback during the victory parade of 14 July 1919. The article was scathing about the absence of references to his role during the First World War as well as the absence of Marshalls Foch and Joffre in the new course books for the final year of junior school classes, in its reference to the new syllabuses coming into force at the start of the new school year. If one follows this logic, one would have to conclude that it was the new course books which were guilty of having deliberately erased the names of the marshals. In fact, when one takes the trouble to examine the contents of the successive syllabuses since the aftermath of the Great War one notices that these names never actually appeared in any of the syllabuses. This demonstrates the extent to which one tends to refer to the contents of the syllabuses without really knowing what they really are…

Blankenberge 1918 (Credit: The Great War 1914-1918 100-Year Remembrance Facebook)

Blankenberge 1918 (Credit: The Great War 1914-1918 100-Year Remembrance Facebook)

“…Teaching about the First World War was formally adopted within the first syllabuses for primary school education which were published after the war in 1923 : they stipulate that generally speaking a part of the study of the “main facts and principal dates of the history of France from 1610 to the present day” should be that of “the 1914-1918 war” without mentioning any other details.

“But from the start of the war the Minister for public education, Albert Sarraut had called upon teachers to talk about the war and to “make children aware of current events and to exalt their patriotic faith within their hearts”.

“In 1915 the minister sent out a circular to school teachers which read: “A school master that I cannot imagine is one who as a Frenchman does not recognise the existence of the war and who continues to live from his same lessons and duties and in this decisive hour can only address his pupils with the same old words”.

“The 1914-1918 war has always been a part of the primary education syllabuses since 1923, without any further details. It must be remembered however that in the 1970s there was no explicit syllabus, history being one of the “learning activities”. It was only in the 1980s that real syllabuses, including the subject of the First World War made their return. Since then the teaching of this war has remained in the syllabuses up to and including the current syllabuses which were published in 2008, in which during, the primary school classes (CE2, CM1 and CM2), there is an introduction to the “two world conflicts”, with the chronological milestones which need to be learned by heart (1916 : Battle of Verdun ; Clemenceau; 11 November 1918 : armistice of the Great War)…

“…The study of the Great War was included in all the syllabuses running from that of 1925 to those used today but with changes concerning the classes concerned and the wordings…

Sites and museums about two World Wars via the-Historvius website

Sites and museums about two World Wars via the-Historvius website

“…Up until 1969, the First World War was only studied in senior school. It was studied in the final year of senior school, except for the 1943 syllabus where it was studied in the penultimate year of senior school because the last year had to be reserved for studying the “developing world” (however because of the Liberation it was not implemented) and also the 1957 syllabus (which was also not used) which involved the study of civilisations in the final year of senior school.

  • It was introduced in junior schools in 1969 as part of the change toward single junior schools. Because the final year at junior school was the last compulsory year of education, pupils who left school after this year had to know their history up to the present day. Since then study of the Great War always came in the last year of junior school before being dealt with once more at senior school.
  • In 1982, it was transferred from the last year to the penultimate year of senior school. In fact, at the time, the syllabus stopped at 1945 but now runs up to the present day. As the syllabus goes further forward in time so the First World War is pushed further back.
  • Up until the 1980s, the wordings of the syllabuses placed the emphasis on military events (“principal theatres of battle, main phases… “, on the consequences for the world order (“ reorganisation of territories, peace treaties, League of Nations”) and on the “ immediate causes (cf. 1941, 1945). The trend was to stick to the military and diplomatic chain of events and the link between causes/process/consequences (this was still clear in 1969 and 1978, 1982 and in 1985).
  • A new detail appeared in the 1988 syllabus for the penultimate year of senior school: where, although the preceding aspects were retained, the study of the “human aspects” of the war was introduced to the course.
  • But it was in the 1995 syllabus for the penultimate year of senior school that the new approach was confirmed: the phases of the conflict were to be presented “briefly” so that its “global character” could be explored fully. A theme based approach focussing on the notion of “total war” took over from the event based approach which had been long been the prevalent method.
  • The 1998 syllabus for the last year of junior school takes up this theme based approach. For sure, pupils learn the “chronological order of the major military phases of the conflict”, as these milestones are essential at junior school but “the emphasis is placed on the total character of this war”. The “suffering of the soldiers” and the “hardships endured by the different peoples” are for the first time explicitly mentioned in the syllabus text.
  • The 2002 ES and L syllabus for the penultimate year of senior school confirmed this new focus and the syllabus of the same year for the penultimate year of senior school S class concentrates on a theme which is fully incorporated within the syllabus: “the French people in the First World War”, with particular attention given to how society is “affected by bereavement”.
  • The syllabus for the final year of junior school, published in 2008 and which has been used for this class since the start of the 2012 school year, confirms the change which began in 1995: the presentation of the three major phases must be “brief”. What is important is to highlight the “mass violence” which characterised the conflict through the use of “ two examples; the war of the trenches and the Armenian genocide”.
  • The 2010 syllabus for the penultimate year of senior school returns to the theme of total war and mass violence by focussing on the “fighting experience”, which is of primary importance in historiographical research and debates in France on the subject of the Great War. This makes it possible to demonstrate to pupils who are coming to the end of their secondary school studies and need to be prepared for higher education, through this study of the First World War, that history is not written once and for all and that it obeys scientific rules and methods, that it uses its own models and that it is a subject of debate. The syllabus takes the new approach even further by considering how the two world wars are examples of the beginning of this era of total war and violence and how, in these two respects, they represent the crossing of a threshold…”


Story: Ken Pottinger


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8 Responses to The Great War Remembered

  1. nancy todd July 27, 2013 at 9:52 pm

    The devastation and numbers of dead I cannot comprehend. Thanks for bringing this to light to remind us of the horrors of war. Important history. Lots of depth I will spend time with. Thanks.

    • admin July 27, 2013 at 11:39 pm

      Thanks Nancy. As the date grows more distant so the remembrance becomes more important.

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