Being Young: Understanding young people’s experiences in the First World War

In this blog post, Dr Marcus Morris discusses his project, exploring the impact of the Great War on children and young people.

One hundred years on from one of the most devastating conflicts in our history, the First World War, multiple commemorations have taken place across the country. Many have taken well-trodden paths, while many others have sought to challenge our understanding of the war and its effects. These attempts to understand the war from different perspectives have also resulted in numerous studies and projects. Today’s younger population has been one of the key audiences for these studies.

This is all welcome and an important part of the centenary celebrations. However, in focusing on young people as recipients of this new understanding, the majority of studies have largely neglected young people’s experiences one hundred years ago. Moreover, there has, at times, been a lack of thought about how young people today receive, process, and react to such celebrations surrounding the war.

The central aim, therefore, of the project ‘Being Young on the Home Front: Young People in North West England during World War One’ has been to examine the war from young people’s perspectives and in ways that will be more meaningful to them. The project was funded by the AHRC First World War Engagement Centre: Voices of War and Peace and led by Marcus Morris through Manchester Metropolitan University’s Manchester Centre for Public History and Heritage.

Young people have remained largely absent from Britain’s First World War home front story. Britain’s ‘boy soldiers’ may be familiar, but what about those who did not want to fight or the girls who wanted to fight? What was the emotional impact on the nation’s young people? How did the loss of hundreds of thousands of fathers, brother, uncles, etc. affect Britain’s children? What about those who contributed through their labour? Did young people feel underappreciated or disempowered? Indeed, young people would often be criticised as delinquents, much like the young people today who we were working with on the project. We tried to answer, or at least examine, some of the questions on the project.

Key to our project was the placing of young people today at the heart of those investigations, to get them interested in their counterparts’ lives one hundred years ago and to make the study of the past meaningful to them. This is always a challenge, especially with young people who may not be naturally drawn to the study of the past. Most of the young people who participated in the project (we had a diverse group, who mostly came from the Salford area, and ranged in age from 13 to 18), had little to no knowledge of the war. If they did, it was the familiar stories of death, destruction and mud in the trenches.

To give our stories of young people’s wartime experiences more relevance, we centred our project on the local area and on themes – the emotional impact, disempowerment and delinquency, and work – that still matter today. We hoped that this would shorten the distance between the past and the present, thereby encouraging engagement with the key questions. More importantly, from the outset we sought to engage with the past in non-traditional ways in the hope that this would stimulate greater interest and further develop understanding.

On the ‘Being Young’ project, our non-traditional method of engaging with the past was through cultural production. The young people participating in the project were tasked – with guidance – with researching, devising, choreographing, rehearsing and performing their own productions based on the themes outlined above. We thus gave the participants authorship of their productions (and these could take the form of their choosing, while they could engage with the theme that most appealed), further encouraging their interest in the topic and associated themes. Our groups chose to understand the war through dance and drama. We hoped to improve their knowledge and understanding of the First World War – as well as that of the academic leads’ of the project – encouraged them to apply that knowledge, and also hoped to develop their research, analytical and creative skills through the performances to a live audience and in their participation in films of the project.

There were undoubted challenges. Working with young people of different ages, from different backgrounds and with different interests all presented issues. However, by developing a non-traditional model we found that we were able to make the past more accessible, memorable and even enjoyable. At least, that’s what the participants said in their feedback and it certainly comes across in their performances. Such enjoyment was crucial to the success of the project.

The young people involved, moreover, all noted that they not only knew more about the conflict, but thought about it in a different way (as something that impacted on more lives than just those fighting) and from a perspective they had not considered before: their own. Indeed, the audiences for both the performances and a film showing also said something similar. Most commonly, those audiences remarked that they had never thought of the war (or indeed any war) from the perspective of a young person or about how it affected young people’s lives. Many saw war as a thing that happened to a soldier on a foreign field, or in a muddy trench in the case of the First World War.

In many ways, as project lead, I saw this as the key aim. For young people and older audiences alike to see the war in a new way and to reimagine it from a different perspective. In these centenary celebrations we should be telling untold stories, hearing different voices and examining the impact of the war beyond its military consequences. To understand or engage with the past, and in particular these centenary commemorations, we should not only be aiming those commemorations at young people, but we should also be encouraging them to take part in a way that is meaningful to them. As such, they will take more from the commemorations and, hopefully, see that the First World War was not simply something that happened one hundred years ago but still has a relevance to their own lives today.

Dr Marcus Morris is Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at Manchester Metropolitan University, and part of the AHRC funded Voices of War and Peace First World War Engagement Centre.

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