A Veteran Teacher's Lessons: World War 1 in the Classroom

By David Forrest posted 02-28-2019 10:40:32 AM

I recently saw a powerful documentary on World War 1. They Shall Not Grow Old made me want to come out of retirement from my history classroom, so I could share this stunning film with students.

This film will give teachers lots of chances to teach about World War 1, and also to get their students talking about the meaning of war more universally. Teachers would do well to add this powerful new documentary into the mix of posters, poems and photographs, literature and web resources they already use to bring this century old conflict alive.

Filmmaker Peter Jackson, of Lord of the Rings fame, tells the story of British soldiers who fought the Germans on the Western Front. Two techniques of the documentary stand out compared with previous efforts in depicting The Great War.

First, Jackson has colorized segments of original World War 1 film footage. The documentary opens and ends in black and white, the old, jerky clips we’ve seen before. However, as young British recruits move closer to the trenches they appear in color and moving naturally, through the magic of the latest computer film restoration techniques. This humanizes the soldiers, and makes the horror of the trenches all the more real, more contemporary.  The rain and the rats, the barbed wire and bombardments, the gas attacks, the fear of going “over the top” into a desolate and dangerous “no-man’s-land", all in living color.

Secondly, the entire documentary is told through the oral testimonies of the men who fought in the trenches. The film has no historians, no narrators, save the voices of the actual British soldiers who suffered the crucible of trench warfare. In their lively way, they tell stories of camaraderie of daily life in the trenches, both its boredom and terror. 

The documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, is still in theaters on the big screen, but is already sold in DVD format, as well. Whether on the big screen or small screen the documentary is rated R because of its graphic violence.  Preview it first.  Be sure that it is appropriate for your students, and if necessary gain parental permission to show it. You may have time to show the entire documentary, about an hour and forty minutes. Even if you can’t give up that much class time for the whole film, the DVD format will make it easy to show smaller portions from the documentary. Use these segments in conjunction with other WW 1 teaching materials.

For example, the film footage of Britain mobilizing for the war would be very effective with a lesson on the British propaganda posters used to recruit soldiers to the cause. The Imperial War Museum has an excellent online collection. Your students could analyze these posters, as they listen to soldiers from the film telling us why they signed up.

The events recounted in the documentary could be paired with the BBC’s excellent World War 1 Timeline and Resources. Students can gain more in depth knowledge of trench warfare by exploring the website’s page devoted to answering the question: How did so many soldiers survive the trenches?

Along with the film, have your students read a chapter from Erich Maria Remarque’s  All Quiet on the Western Front, which depicts the same horrors of trench warfare, but from a young German soldier’s point of view. In addition, in the documentary students will have a chance to meet German prisoners of war and hear British soldiers’ reactions to their captives.  

No doubt, parts of They Shall Not Grow Old will amplify the questions raised by the famous WW 1 Poets, Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon. Have your students read them, or perhaps read and discuss the meaning of Wilfred Owen’s poem, Dulce et Decorum Est. Did Owen believe it was sweet and fitting to die for one’s country? Do your students agree?

In the conclusion of They Shall Not Grow Old, the combatants talk of the end of the war. They share their experiences of going home, of trying to integrate back into a society that wanted to move on. Their voices are an echo of more modern veterans, those from the more recent US wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

A lot of experiences of World War 1 are left out of the documentary, as Jackson notes in his discussion of how he made the film. Teachers need lessons on these varied people and events, too. That said, 100 years after the Armistice ending World War 1, They Shall Not Grow Old is an excellent resource for teachers. It is a film that will bring The Great War into our 21st century classrooms like no other. 




05-04-2019 02:02:16 PM

Thanks for the great recommendations. These films sound like they would be perfect for the classroom. I recently read two novels that would serve a great role in a history classroom covering World War II. They are Across the Channel by Chris Glatte and Invasion by Walter Dean Myers. Everything you have your students do should serve a purpose and these definitely do. These young adult novels show a truly realist portrayal of the war even though they are fiction. Whether it is a film or novel, they both can do a lot to add to a classroom instead of just giving notes and lecturing!

05-03-2019 07:10:08 PM

Without a doubt, They Shall Not Grow Old would be an excellent video resource to use in the social studies classroom. The level of detail in the documentary really paints a stark visual image of the nature of combat during The Great War, as well as how brutal trench warfare and combat really was during this period. As you pointed out in your post, the fact that there is no narration and that all the dialogue in the film is that of soldiers who took part in it is truly spectacular. Thank you for this great post and recommendation.

05-01-2019 08:33:32 PM

They Shall Not Grow Old is a fantastic documentary and can be paired well with the book All Quiet on the Western Front. Both tell stories of soldiers on the western front of World War 1 and each offer valuable viewpoints. Both the documentary and the book can be used to supplement instruction in a World War 1 unit because neither need a lot of background teaching.

All Quiet on the Western Front would be an excellent book to use in literature circles. Students will practice reading and comprehension skills by breaking down the text with their circle group-mates, practice discussion skills, and relate the book to the unit content though a literature circle project. I think it would be best for the groups to do the project together because of the difficulty of the text. The documentary would be best used daily at key points in instruction instead all at once. 

Great post and recommendation!

04-19-2019 05:01:43 PM

Thanks also for sharing this.

I loved the documentary. The lighting, the quality of both the sound and the picture really puts a different perspective on the War in general. Certain movies, (Obviously the books too), like All Quiet on the Western Front do put some good aspects of what the front was really like, but this easily takes the cake. I can not wait for it to come out for release so i can show it in my future classes.

03-26-2019 06:31:10 PM

Thanks for sharing