The need for a new civic education

One of the principal purposes of education is to enable young people to become informed and engaged citizens. At a basic level we need all school leavers to understand the value of their voting right (gained through the sacrifices of past generations), and how to participate effectively within a pluralistic system.

While comparatively lower levels of turnout among potential first-time and younger cohort voters is not a recent phenomenon (although corrected somewhat in the 2017 General Election), the risks arising from such wholesale civic abstention seem ever more acute in our rapidly mutating political culture.  This is an urgent issue for the education system, but not merely because of the duty incumbent on schools to promote pluralistic values.  If we accept that the future of democracy depends on an informed electorate, capable of formulating reasoned argument, and evaluating political claims, then there is significant work to be done by schools.

But there is a more profound and urgent challenge for schools. Over the last two and a half decades schools have worked hard to embed values of respect and truthfulness at the centre of behavioural codes, and as core threads in PSHE education.  But the tone and character of aspects of recent political debate – and the way it is amplified through some traditional and social media channels – undermines the good work of schools in promoting the values needed by the next generations of citizens.

The coarsening of rhetoric, the rise of identity politics, the echo-chamber effect of social media, the proliferation of extremist rhetoric and conspiracy theories online, the rush to take offence, the appropriation of outrage, and the as yet only partially understood role of harvested data in the shaping of opinion and the targeting of individual voters, present powerful challenges to our understanding of the world around us.  How should schools make sense of these phenomena when articulating the positive value of a pluralistic political system, and an open society where the individual is empowered to express comment, opinion and much else besides?

Of course much great work is already being done, whether within the curriculum, by groups working to promote young people’s voices such as youth parliaments, and also by elected representatives visiting schools, or welcoming pupils to centres of national, devolved and local government. It is difficult to put a value on such opportunities, and pupils relish the opportunity to question and challenge elected representatives.

The question of how best to educate young people about politics and government is not a new one, but it has certainly become more urgent. While many thousands benefit from courses such as A Level Politics or Modern Studies, a far greater number miss out on such opportunities.  The current state of political culture raises the question of how we can ensure that pupils in all schools are empowered with the skills and knowledge required to exercise their citizenship and participate in civilised debate.

A key challenge for the education system is to equip future generations of voters and citizens with an informed and critical understanding of institutions, processes, actors and influencers.

All young people should leave school with a basic understanding of the following, although this list is far from exclusive:

  • The core functions of Parliament, Central Government, Local Government, the Civil Service and non-Departmental Agencies
  • The roles of political parties, think-tanks and pressure groups
  • How laws are made
  • The rights and responsibilities that accompany freedom of expression (as understood within the law)
  • The core principles of journalistic ethics, such as the distinctions between fact and opinion

In addition we also need to equip young people with the skills of citizenship including:

  • critical evaluation of news sources and social media
  • debating and the construction of reasoned argument
  • mediation and non-coercive solutions to conflict
  • the capacity to appreciate opposing perspectives
  • the ability to admit one’s own errors and forgive the actions of others

Politics and its reporting have changed significantly in the age of social media and big data.  Schools needs to catch up and renew their provision of civic education.  The long-term goal is surely a healthier political culture, with future cohorts of citizens from all backgrounds more confident to engage in informed debate, and to express their opinions, both at the ballot box and via other forms of peaceful participation.








The future of cross-sector partnerships


In his excellent contribution to the September 2018 issue of HMC Insight Magazine, Dr Joe Spence, Master of Dulwich College, highlighted recent developments in cross-sector partnerships and (rightly) repudiated the charge that the independent sector has only tinkered in this area.  Across the country and over many years schools have been engaged in various types of cross-sector partnership, benefiting thousands of pupils and building important and durable links between teachers and leaders. Independent State School Partnerships (ISSPs) have been at the forefront of this critically important work, but also much has been achieved through bilateral arrangements and other forms of collaboration.

In recent years much partnership work has focused on pupil-facing activities, such as gifted and talented programmes, the provision of additional twilight courses at GCSE, and the raising and channelling of aspiration for post-18 study, and especially towards the most competitive courses and universities, where widening access remains an imperative.  There are, of course, brilliant opportunities for these hugely important activities to be further developed and embedded, especially in localities where such work is still in its infancy.  The important work Schools Together in promoting partnership work, and the welcome increase in interest and support from the DfE, as well as the ever growing appetite for collaboration among schools of schools of all types, bodes well for the future of cross-sector collaboration.

Joe Spence hits the nail on the head in arguing that independent schools have a great deal to learn from the state sector in areas such as data ‘sharpness’ – to which I would also add the effective support of pupils of diverse ability ranges within the classroom, among several other areas.  While Joe rightly cautions us against excessive generalisation, the enduring differences he notes in teaching cultures between the independent and state sectors underscores the importance of a two way flow of best practice.

His article also notes the work of Teaching Schools, which have considerably expanded opportunities for initial teacher training and continuing professional learning.  Teaching School Alliances, which have the networks, know-how and infrastructure to facilitate exchange, could play a key role in brokering mutually beneficial cross-sector work.  I would like to see more Teaching School Alliances becoming facilitators of exchanges between the independent and state sectors, as is already the case in those led by King Edward VI High School for Girls and by Wellington College, among others.

If partnership work is to be based – as of course it should be – on parities of esteem between the capabilities of the independent and state sectors, we therefore need to leverage some of the state sector systems that have emerged over the last two decades to benefit as many pupils as possible – including those in independent schools.  While many independent schools are privileged in their access to resources and staffing, this state of affairs is far from universal, and all institutions could benefit considerably from access to research-informed practices and to the networks supporting areas such as leadership, pedagogy and assessment that have emerged over the last decade principally within the state sector, for example through Research Schools.

Cross-sector partnerships also need to embrace those self-forming teacher communities woven by the filaments of social media. Twitter has proven to be an impressively disruptive force in educational discourse and professional learning, defeating constraints of geography and resource to link teachers with other communities, such as academic neuroscience, resulting in significantly enhanced understanding in areas such as memory, cognition and retrieval practice.  Those of us involved in cross sector partnership work can learn much from the accelerated evolution of movements such as ResearchEd, which function independently of institutional hierarchies (and are doubtless much more effective as a result).

A further priority for cross-sector partnership must now be to support deep subject understanding in teacher learning, not just in initial training, or in shortage areas, but across the curriculum. The fostering of a sense of sense of ownership and excitement around a subject, where extension work and pupil independent reading and research can flourish, is an ever more urgent priority in an age where domain-specific knowledge is regaining its status in educational discourse. Christine Counsell’s recent and welcome calls for curriculum to be a school leadership priority surely presents opportunities for collaborative construction across the sectors.

However, shared professional learning should not be confined to the sectoral axis of  independent and state in secondary education. One of the crucial challenges for teaching and learning across the coming decades is better vertical integration of subject understanding between schools, universities, professional bodies and learned institutions such as museums and libraries. This has long been recognised in STEM subjects, in part driven by the historic convergence of university and employer concerns over student numbers and the fragility of graduate supply (and more recently by governmental economic priorities), which has resulted in exciting activity in areas such as teacher subject knowledge enhancement, and summer taster courses for pupils, especially focusing on those from less advantaged backgrounds.

A similar re-engagement is now urgently needed in the Humanities, Social Sciences and Languages. Teachers in these disciplines need structured and supported opportunities to engage with academics to understand how their subjects are conceptualised,  researched and taught at university level.  As well as supporting teacher development, this engagement could also help schools in framing study opportunities in these subject areas to pupils from backgrounds where access is less of an expectation.

The interesting work of Will Bailey-Watson and Charlotte Crouch at the University of Reading to connect trainee History teachers and History PhD students offers a model for such professional dialogue, which surely has the potential for broader replication. Therefore, at a national level there is surely an opportunity for partnership work to be aligned not only horizontally across the sectors, but also vertically between the tiers. (Could there be some form of national academic library membership scheme to enable all teachers to access resources, both digitally and in print forms ?)

Accountability pressures relating to school partnership work are unlikely to diminish. While the political pressures are felt most strongly by the independent sector, leaders in all schools are confronted by tough and constraining choices over the commitment of both pupil and staff time to partnership work, and the imperative of demonstrating measurable impact.  While the need to reconcile investment to impact is a fact of life in a world of sharply limited resources, I hope that partnership work will always hedge its activities between those that deliver measurable outcomes (such as additional GCSESs for example) with more open-ended exposure to those intellectual and cultural experiences that are typically available to pupils in the best resourced settings.

Partnership activity throws up as many questions as it answers. But all state and independent schools leaders whom I know to be engaged in partnership such work do so because they believe that there will be real benefit to the pupils involved, ever mindful of the scarce resources of time and money committed.  Pupil benefit should always be the prime motivation, and evaluation of outcome should emphasise the formative experience and access to knowledge and cultural capital, as well as qualifications gained and offers received.  However, we also need to ask broad questions about the future direction of partnership work.

Greater opportunities for education professionals to work together, whether in person or via online communities, across the educational sectors and tiers, could build on and complement existing activities, creating sustainable collaborative models, and thus hopefully enhancing the life chances and outcomes of even more young people.

Every school pupil should visit the First World War Battlefields

As the centenary of the First World War enters its final months, the imperative of remembrance has never been more urgent. It is nearly a decade since the death of Harry Patch, the last British soldier to have served on the Western Front, and soon there will be no living person with any recollection of the years 1914-1918.

Few conflicts in History have been subject to more intensive interpretative layering – the process began with the outbreak of war itself, as Foreign ministries rushed to prove their innocence and the guilt of their enemies.  The battlefields of First World War historiography have been subject to waves of attack and counterattack, revision and counter-revision.  While many fine syntheses have been produced, how long will these stand the test of time (and historiographical assault) given that so many key debates around cause, course and consequence remain unresolved ?

Over the last decade leading historians including Sir Christopher Clark (Sleepwalkers), Prof Margaret Macmillan (The War That Ended Peace) and Prof David Reynolds  (The Long Shadow) have returned to the big questions around why this war broke out, why it ended the way it did, and how we frame it in our understanding with a century of hindsight. Television documentaries have helped to wrap military archaeology into the broader understanding of the First World War, notably Fergal Keane’s The First World War From Above (BBC 1, 2010) and Peter Barton’s The Somme, Secret Tunnel Wars (BBC Four, 2013).

Poperinghe view
Poperinghe, Flanders

One reason for this enduring fascination with the First World War can be located in the  sense of national ownership of this conflict, whether in the private and familial sphere, or publicly through the annual commemoration focused on The Cenotaph, and repeated at countless local memorials.  The poppy has become one of the most successfully established symbols of national remembrance.

A second reason lies in the enduring consequences of the War – to be found variously in the contested geopolitical contours of the Middle East, in the USA’s internal discourse over the nature (and dollar cost) of its global role, in the ongoing exceptionalism of Russia’s political culture, and in Britain’s own awkward sense of its relationship to its continental neighbours.

A third reason lies in the widespread instrumentalization of the First World War, whether as a ready-to-use parable of governmental and diplomatic system-failure (both in its origins and its termination), or as a crisis of European imperialism, or as an accelerator of national social and economic change, or as a catalyst for post-colonial identity.  The First World War often seems to be the off-the-peg analogy of choice for many international relations scholars.

As a History teacher I have always enjoyed teaching the First World War because of the balance between the macro and the micro – the potential to shift focus from grand concepts such as the Wilsonian world view to the detail captured in a soldier’s letter to his parents.  As The First World War recedes further into the past, will its historicisation in school teaching continue to respond to, and be shaped by, contested and changing national narratives of  identity and sacrifice?

Over the fifteen years that I have taught this topic the high tide of satirical disdain for British generalship began to ebb, as the welcome revisionism of scholars such as Prof Gary Sheffield began to feed into the popular understanding of the war.  I suspect that for many years to come the First World War will be susceptible to entanglement with contested narratives and proxy debates.  On one Battlefields Trip some years ago I tried to explain to my South of England pupils the iconography of Ulster Tower on The Somme, and how this might have resonated for them far more powerfully, and in different ways, had they been visiting from a school from one or other of the two cultural and political traditions in Northern Ireland.

Given that the First World War has done much to shape the present world, the story of its origins and course should be taught and studied in schools. Admittedly, the origins can be heavy going, due to the bewildering interplay of regional ethnic politics, great power diplomacy, infra-governmental chaos, the nexus of military and industrial power, and the growing clamour of the popular press. But difficulty should not be shied away from, and indeed the very complexity of the War’s origins serves to remind us that causation is seldom a simple chain of intention, action and outcome.

The great battles of the War should be studied –  including First Marne, The Somme, Verdun, Third Ypres, The Kaiser’s 1918 Offensive, and the allied victories around Amiens in the final months of the war.  It is here that we can blend the general’s-eye-view of battle with the experiences of individual soldiers, caught brilliantly in volumes such as Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices of the Great War (Ebury, 2002) and in a host of online collections, building on BBC Television’s ground-breaking Great War Interviews from the 1960s.

Poppies Hawthorne Crater
Poppies, near Hawthorn Ridge Crater, The Somme

Although its intrinsic worth as a historical topic is absolutely undeniable, the First World War also has immense value in helping us to understand the relationship between the individual, the family, the locality and the broader context of historical events.  The  work of The National Archives, The Imperial War Museum and The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (among other bodies) enables us to locate the  individual serviceman’s story within the enfolding membranes of family, town, regiment, army and national war effort.  We should see these bodies as repositories of a cultural capital of equal richness to our principal national museums and galleries.

Where the First World War can exert a special power over the imagination is in its specificity of time and place.  While soldiers from the combatant nations, and their colonies and dominions, gave their lives across several continents, the Western Front remains a unique locus of sacrifice, because of the sheer concentration of destruction on the battlefields of France and Belgium across the years 1914-1918.  So many of the political ideas and movements (cultural as well as ideological) of the twentieth century, from the laudable to the abhorrent, were conceived amid these broken landscapes.

There is, I would contend, an onus on schools to continue to emphasise the singularity of the First World War. But this cannot be done solely from resources found within the classroom.  Pilgrimage is a notion that sits uneasily in a more secular age. However, there is already a century of tradition of visiting the battlefields of the First World War – it began even before the guns were silenced, and is captured perhaps most poignantly in Sir John Lavery’s 1919 painting The Cemetery, Etaples hanging in the Imperial War Museum, London.  More prosaically, the Michelin Guides were updated within months of the end of the war, advising visitors to locations such as Verdun to bring a packed lunch, for want of local catering.

Lavery Etaples
The Cemetery, Etaples by Sir John Lavery (1919) copyright Imperial War Museum, London

I first visited the Western Front early in my teaching career and it has affected me more profoundly than I could have expected.  I have returned several times, and I do not think that I can stay away.  Conversations with pupils in several schools over the years have led me to believe that they too have been affected. However, I believe that this response extends beyond the understandable pathos felt by young people when confronted with rows of headstones bearing the names and details of soldiers who were often not much older than themselves when their lives were lost.  Exposure to these locations changes the way that we understand the human experience of war.  One of the simplest but most affecting features of Tynecot Cemetery is the automatic triggering of a soldier’s name being read aloud as you walk towards the Visitors’ Centre.  A similar pivoting between the bigger picture and the individual experience is done with the same powerful effect at the excellent In Flanders Fields Museum in the rebuilt Ypres Cloth Hall.

Visiting the Western Front helps us to anchor and fix our understanding of individual suffering and loss within the totality of the whole. Finding the location where a soldier from your school or home town is buried can be a moment that brings silence to a group. When one pupil’s hand goes up, others will gather at the headstone. Walking the line of an infantry advance from a start point to a small cemetery marking (as they often did) the limit of that unit’s progress, helps us civilians at least to visualise a scene of sacrifice, even though we may never recreate the emotions and thoughts in the mind of a soldier.

History is one of the Humanities, and one of its key preoccupations is the individual experience of civilisation at both its highest and lowest points. We owe it to the hundreds of thousands of soldiers of all nations lying in the cemeteries of France and Belgium to honour their sacrifice.  Furthermore, the young people of this country have a right to see where the soldiers from their cities, towns and villages from across the United Kingdom gave their lives in this epoch-changing clash of arms.

The Thiepval Memorial  (horizon) seen from Munich Trench Cemetery, The Somme

The monuments of  the Western Front also give us important lessons about the global character of the 1914-1918 war. The cemeteries tell us a story of diversity that is recognisable in 21st century Britain and continental Europe.  One need only visit the French cemeteries and memorials at Saint-Charles-Potyze (Ypres, Belgium) and Vimy Ridge (France, Pas-de-Calais) to appreciate the significance of the African contribution to the fighting on the Western Front. And, of course, the Entente imperial powers relied heavily on soldiers from many nations and religious affiliations, across the theatres of conflict.

The First World War has played a unique part in shaping Britain’s understanding of its past and present.  For this reason, every secondary school pupil in Britain should visit the 1914-1918 battlefields of France and Belgium, even if only for a single day, and participate in the unique nightly Last Post service at The Menin Gate.  Each pupil visit to the First World War Battlefields threads a filament of compassion and understanding between the past and present.


Poperinghe Cemetery








York ISSP Masterclasses 2018 – a personal reflection

Over three Saturday afternoons in February and March I had the pleasure of working with a group of year 9 and 10 pupils from schools across York as part of the York ISSP annual masterclasses.  To be allowed to teach on this programme was a real honour … but also a daunting challenge. Like pulling on the jersey of a top team, you know that eyes will be on you, and expectations will (rightly) be high.

Teaching is always a privilege – but the opportunity to teach a group comprising pupils from several schools, including from St Peter’s, where I work – carries a special responsibility.

This sense of trepidation was amplified by the reality that I am still a newcomer to York, and that I was being trusted to work under the York ISSP name – a hallmark of the highest quality in the world of school-to-school collaboration.  For twelve years the school leaders, teachers and coordinators of the York ISSP, and generations of pupils, have worked tremendously hard to build this wonderful partnership.  As the first session approached, impostor syndrome started to kick in quite strongly, as the discipline I chose to work in was one about which I am passionate, but definitely an amateur.

Our brief for this year’s Masterclass was to explore the question “What is truth?” through a our chosen subject area.  I opted for “The Truth in What We See” and decided to approach it through The History of Art.

I divided up the question of whether truth can be found in art through three key questions:

-Can we trust our eyes ?

-What truths can we find in portrait and landscape art?

-Can art tell moral and political truths ?

In order to frame these questions, we began by looking at four distinct perspectives on the relationship between art and truth – those of Plato, Vasari, Kant and Picasso.

thinkers 4

Below are a small sample of the many images that we used to explore notions of truth in art – through asking questions across a broad range of themes, which we related to these four thinkers and artists.

We explored the differing use of perspective in two famous depictions of The Crucifixion, that of Masaccio’s Trinity (1427) and Salvador Dali’s The Christ of St John (1951).



What truths are artists wanting us to understand in their self-portraits? We looked at several self-portraits, including those of Albrecht Dürer aged 28  (1500) and of Frida Kahlo aged c.33 (1940).

Durer and Kahlo


We looked at what truths artists may be seeking to convey when portraying others. I can’t resist juxtaposing two of the world’s finest portraits, Diego Velázquez’s Pope Innocent X (1650) and John Singer Sargent’s Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (1892). (I hope that one day the respective homes of these masterpieces will make this happen in reality !)


Velazquez and Sargent


We also looked at how artists seek to convey moral and political truths, through a three-way comparison of Francisco Goya’s 3 May 1808 (below, right), with Edouard Manet’s The Execution of Emperor Maximilan (1868-9) and (left, below)  Street Fight (1927) by Otto Dix, itself destroyed during the closing months of the Second World War.

Manet, Goya and Dix

It was a huge privilege spending three afternoons looking at amazing art with a group of young people willing to commit their free time to working with content that had demanding and provoking themes.  If you are a teacher, and are ever in the position to work on such a programme, it is a wonderful experience, where the hard work is rewarded many times over by the insights and contributions from the pupil group.

There are many great school-to-school partnerships around the country, of all shapes and sizes, and organised along a variety of models.  If you are a Head and in an area where there isn’t a partnership, why not make that phone call to your neighbouring Heads ?


Dionissia and the robber baron: a 13th century Northumbrian drama


“My sire is of a noble line,

And my name is Geraldine:

Five warriors seized me yestermorn,

Me, even me, a maid forlorn:

They choked my cries with force and fright,

And tied me on a palfrey white.”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Christabel, Part I

Umfraville Arms from Elsdon, Northumberland
The arms of the Umfraville lords of Redesdale


Between 20 and 26 January 1279 Dionissia Bechfeld  appeared in the royal courts at Newcastle before John de Vaux, and five other of the King’s Justices, as a plaintiff seeking damages.

The court heard that six and a half years earlier, on Monday 22 August 1272, she had been crossing Middleburn Moor in the company of her uncle Master John Pampingham, on the return leg of a journey to Newcastle where they had been pleading before Master Roger Seton, on an unknown legal matter. She was evidently a woman of some property, as the three sureties for her attendance were all men known as significant local landowners. [1]

Near “Opintel Bridge” she was set upon by Roger Inhou, William Swethop, his brother John, and Walter Swethop, and was taken to “Ilyscaghe” in Redesdale, where she was held for a night. During this time she was pressured by Walter Swethop, who was also the lord of Redesdale’s steward, to marry his son Richard, on pain of being taken into Scotland, never to be released.  Upon her refusal, Swethop made good his threat and took her to Jedburgh, where she remained for a day and a night, until rescued by her uncle John Pampingham.

To avoid a repetition of her earlier nightmare when returning from Jedburgh, Dionissia engaged a local guide, William, son of Ralph the chief forester of Redesdale, at the improbably large fee of £10 (or so she claimed in the proceedings). However, on reaching Harbottle Castle, the administrative centre of Redesdale, she was seized again by Walter Swethop, accused of trespassing “with force of arms” and was required to find two pledges for her return at a future date to answer charges, and was freed on payment of a £10 surety.

At this point she appears to have regained her liberty, albeit despoiled (or so she claimed) of horse and saddle, and a blue robe, together worth 40s.  In spite of the chivalrous culture later attributed to this locality in romantic writing such Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border and in Coleridge’s Christabel, there seems a dearth of knights riding to Dionissia’s rescue.

Dionissia’s miserable experience was more than merely another story of up country medieval banditry, it was illustrative also of the peculiar context of Redesdale and its lord, Gilbert de Umfraville, earl of Angus (by right of his Scottish mother), a character well suited to the liminal zone that he dominated. The king’s writ, the common law of England, tax collectors and other agents of royal power had no authority in the 138,000 acres of the Liberty of Redesdale.

Such baronial “micro-states” were a standard feature of the Welsh marches, but those in the north were, by contrast, mostly ecclesiastical – notably the great bishopric of Durham, and the monastic towns of Hexham and Tynemouth.  In the face of repeated challenges by crown lawyers against his privileges, Umfraville claimed that his ancestor Robert had been granted Redesdale by William the Conqueror, (and therefore beyond the 1189 limit of legal memory) with the sole duty of “defending against wolf and robber.” [2]

While Umfraville’s success in lupine pest control is unrecorded, it seems that crime, as well as justice, were monopolised by himself and his fearsome retinue.  If the complaints of a neighbouring lord, Robert de Lisle of Chipchase, are to be believed, Umfraville’s stewards had an established line in livestock theft, and in 1300 he cited his immunity from royal justice to turn away the King’s commissioners who had come to investigate coinage fraud. [3]

In 1265 the young Gilbert had been in the company of The Lord Edward (future King Edward I) at the siege of Alwnick Castle, whose lord John de Vesci had been an adherent of Simon de Montfort, the great enemy of King Henry III.  On the strength of an allegation by Gilbert that his tenant, William, lord of Douglas, was with the rebels, the Lord Edward granted him the manor of Fawdon, provided that the allegation was true.  Douglas later proved the opposite in the King’s courts in Westminster, and secured a writ to recover his lands, which occurred around 20 July 1267.

But Douglas’ victory was short lived, as around 1 August Umfraville sent a force of ‘a hundred of the king’s enemies’ to eject him and his wife Constance. Douglas was arrested and taken to Harbottle Casle for eight days, his son William suffered an injury “that nearly severed his head”, and 31 marks of silver were looted from the property at Fawdon, which was burned down. Restitution only came for William Douglas when he appeared before the King’s Justice, Gilbert Preston, at Newcastle on 25 June 1269, and secured damages against Umfraville of 110 marks for the fire, although we do not know whether this was paid.[4]

Detail of Jedburgh and the border lands, from C. Smith, New Map of Great Britain and Ireland (1806)

The case of William, lord of Douglas showed that, in spite of Umfraville’s expansive claims, the crown was nevertheless keen to assert its overlordship.  By the time that Dionissia made her plea in 1279, the Lord Edward had become King Edward I, and one of the defining themes of his reign was a sustained assault on private jurisdictions. Edward I might well have concurred with the verdict of the great Victorian historian of Northumberand, J. H. Hodgson, who characterised the liberty of Redesdale as “the prolific mother of all the disorders, the crimes and peculiarities for which the population here was so long notorious.” [5]

Dionissia’s faith in royal justice would, at least in part, be vindicated. Of the defendants named in her accusation, only Swethop presented himself before John de Vaux in January 1279, the others being found guilty by default of their absence. Dionissia pressed for £100 damages for her treatment – a hefty sum, given that in 1307 the entire Redesdale estate would be assessed as yielding an annual income of £238 (about £190,000 in modern purchasing power).

The justices sentenced Swethop to prison for having detained her at Harbottle, and all of the accused were fined 20 marks (c.£13) damages payable to Dionissia, and 100 shillings (£5) for the offences.  As far as is known, Dionissia lived out her life without having to marry Richard Swethop, and was assessed for taxation in 1296 as liable for £2 2s. 4d., consistent with her owning property in her own right.[6]

Life was due to become much tougher for Gilbert de Umfraviile, and lords with similar pretensions.  In January 1293 all of the barons of Northumberland were required to produce royal charters proving their privileges as part a series of inquiries called Quo Warranto. Once again Umfraville succeeded in arguing that his Liberty of Redesdale had been enjoyed time immemorial, and therefore there was no legal way to curtail it. (The twelve local jurors finding for him included John Swethop).  However they did not accept his claim that he had licence to hold a market and fair at Whelpington, as the supposed charter from Henry III granting it could not be produced, and he was fined as a result. [7]

The golden age of the Umfravilles would soon come to an end. During the years of Anglo-Scottish peace, Redesdale and its lords had profited from its location between two royal  jurisdictions. However, the Scottish succession crisis of 1290 led to devastating wars, the impact of which can be sensed from the royal inquisition into the condition of the Umfraville estates on 10 May 1325, following the death of Gilbert’s son, Robert. Family properties such as Prudhoe Castle, and estates at Inghou, Whelpington and Alwinton were found to have been burned or wasted, while the Scottish lands and titles were lost forever.[8]

Although the title lord of Redesdale remained with the Umfravilles until the extinction of the family’s main line in 1436, by then their interests had already shifted to estates that they had acquired through marriage in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, and which were doubtless easier to manage.

Heiress abduction in medieval England was not unknown, and several cases survive in the records. The publication of printed transcripts of the Northumbrian court rolls considerably post-dates the writing of Coleridge’s Christabel.  The fact that the judge in Dionissia’s case shares a surname with a key character in Coleridge’s poem – Roland de Vaux – is most likely a diverting coincidence.

* * *


[1]  She is referred to elsewhere in court records as Dionissia “de Ba”. Other Bechfelds are mentioned in the crown’s judicial records for Northumberland in the late 13th century, but Dionissia’s identity remains sketchy. The case that she was pleading in all likelihood related to landed property.  The sureties are named as John Herle, Walter Tyndale and John Lithgreenes.  The Moor is possibly Middle Burn in Hexham, Northumberland.  Three Early Assize Rolls for the County of Northumberland, ed. J. Raine, Surtees Society, lxviii (1891), pp. xxv-xxvi; 369-273.   

[2] Calendar of Documents Relating to Scotland III, 1307-1357 , 19, p. 4.

[3] Ancient Petitions Relating to Northumberland, ed. C. M. Fraser, Surtees Soc., 176 (1966), pp. 112-114, nos. 87 & 88; Calendar of Documents Relating to Scotland II, 1272-1307 , 1972, p. 523.

[4] Three Early Assize Rolls for the County of Northumberland, p.147.

[5] J. H. Hodgson, A History of Northumberland in Three Parts, Part II, Vol, II (Newcastle, 1827) p. 28.

[6] Three Early Assize Rolls for the County of Northumberland, p.xxv

[7] Placita de Quo Warranto (HM Record Commisson, 1831), pp. 593-4.

[8]  (Inquisition post mortem, Robert de Umfraville, 10 May 1325).



Using French Journalism in Teaching the First World War: (2) ‘Infernal war,’ by Emile Henriot, L’Illustration, 26 September 1914


[Translated by Alastair Dunn. The elipses “…” follow those of the original French text. The images below are a selection of those that accompanied the original.]

In the midst of the French lines – in Soissons under bomabrdment – the ruins of Senlis.  17 September.

Rue Bellon, Senlis
The systematic destruction by the Germans of the old towns of France – The Rue Bellon, Senlis

We arrived by car in driving rain at La Ferté-Milon, having crossed all the battlefields of the Marne from Meaux onwards, and all the villages where they had passed, of which there remain only ruins and still glowing embers.  In these tragic times it is not the memory of Jean Racine that fills our spirits when we reach this friendly little town… The Germans came through after the retreat of our line. During their nine days of occupation, hundreds of thousands of men arrived, camped and passed through. You can still read the Germans’ writing on the doors, in chalk – how many men, how many horses, what quality of service. Those brave people who had remained, and who had not fled in the face of the barbarians, told us what they had seen. We questioned them avidly.

In general the town had not suffered. They requisitioned as much, and more, than they needed, and, under the guise of re-supply they emptied systematically shops, henhouses and wine cellars. The mayor offered himself as a hostage, a brave man – he did his duty, that was it. Thanks to him, the place was spared slightly. The Germans preferred to loot and pillage those houses where they would find no one to fight back or resist.  And, if any did resist, they would be up against a wall straight away…

When they left suddenly, retreating ahead of the English and our soldiers, they cut the bridge behind them. They passed through the town as if on parade. But it was nonetheless a retreat. This is witnessed by all the ammunition boxes and the big shells left on the road sides, the columns of supplies that our men captured and burned in the forests of Villers-Cotterets; and also by the completely abandoned battery high up on one side, dominating the town and the surrounding area. This battery of eight grey guns, with their carriages, and their breaches broken, carried the haughty and pretentious phrase Ultima regis ratio.[1]

While we were looking at these guns chat could no longer do any more harm to our side, we heard a bombardment in the direction of Soissons. In spite of the rain, that muffled and reduced the noise, the rumbling continued ceaselessly. We covered our ears, but the man from those parts who was accompanying us was used it, it didn’t disturb him anymore. Our papers being in order, we are going to see…

About fifteen kilometres from La Ferté, which we had left, the appearance of a column of French artillery showed us that we had arrived at the rear of our lines.  All the way up to Soissons, in effect, we constantly encountered our soldiers, in all the innumerable and necessary functions of an army on the move: convoys of munitions and supplies, commissariat, baggage trains, medical services, military vehicles, grey gun carriages with white lettering, vehicles of all types, official or requisitioned. Carriages, buses, cars, enormous canvas-covered lorries. For miles and miles the convoys rolled up and down, an immense movement, and a prodigious operation that brought comfort and pleasure…

Some villages. The people were at their doorsteps, in spite of the driving rain. Some troops were stationed there. At Longpont a crowd surrounded us, eager for news. These admirable soldiers, who had come to save France, and its honour, and who had been fighting for two weeks, wanted news, and asked for newspapers, cigarettes and tobacco. They even wanted to buy it from us, but we had already given away all our provisions…

Soldiers crossing the Oise
Verberie Bridge, near Compiegne. 18,000 French troops crossed The Oise on this bridge, improvised between 10pm and 7am, from barges and sleepers, by Captain of Engineers Bougier, his telegraph sappers, and thirty civilian volunteer well-wishers.

Over there the guns sounded. At each bounce of the car, on the waterlogged road, the sound grew louder and more voluble, in spite of the incessant traffic, as we approached. The battle was not far away. For an hour we had been passed by ambulances carrying the wounded from the front; today’s wounded, the freshly wounded, and whom we saw laid out on canvas, their heads or arms bandaged.… They were Algerian riflemen for the most part, wrapped in their long woollen cloaks. As we left one of the villages, we were hailed by a farmer who had seen everything. He put us in the picture. Every day the bombardment had extended but today it appeared to stay still, or so it seemed to him.  The fighting was north of Soissons.  A soldier told us they were firmly dug in, and that they would go for them with bayonets, and that the Algerians had captured a battery… This was where the wounded came from that we would see later.

A few kilometres from Soissons we asked the way from a couple of soldiers. They advised us against going any further: it was in the firing line and the route wasn’t safe. The Germans have the road under observation, and when they know that a convoy is passing by, they fire on it. Yesterday, a car was riddled. “Can we go on anyway?” we asked. “Yes but your own risk and peril” they replied. We shall see then…

Now we are all ready. But after a few moments the layman’s ear, if we can call it that, as it is not that of a soldier, recognises this terrible music and can distinguish between the sinister voices that form this orchestra: the regular intervals of our own 75mm guns, quick and sharp; the more deafening response of the German guns, and then, separated by long gaps, dominating and underscoring it all, the immense growling of the great siege mortars, which they call with their accustomed levity “Busy Bertha” and “Lazy Gretchen.”

Bombardment of Soissons
Bombardment of Soissons by German Heavy Artillery. Fires started by the shells. Bursts of shrapnel. French gun emplacements concealed on the banks of the Aisne. Photograph taken from the clock tower of Saint-Jean-des-Vignes.

For four days – we are on Thursday and they began on Monday – the Germans bombarded Soissons. We expected to be stopped at several checkpoints, asking to return whence we had come, and quickly. But there was none of that. An English officer, on being asked whether we could enter the town, said to us phlegmatically, “You can, but it is very unpleasant.” It did not take us long to see the effects of the bombardment, even from the outskirts.  The admirable church of St Jean-des-Vignes is the first witness to the Germans’ savagery: one of the long and narrow spires of the double clock-tower had been blown away; while the other had been torn by shrapnel. We were advancing through a three-quarters deserted town.  Here on the cobbled road there was a sort of ditch two to three metres deep and five or six wide, the cobbles had been ripped out, and the surface reduced to sand, with broken fragments all around. Here is a two-storey house that had been hit from behind, and had collapsed into the street like a house of cards.  Roofs blown off, walls knocked down, trees broken, we stopped counting.  The Post Office and the Great Seminary were in ruins.  When we passed by the cathedral it had suffered relatively little: only one of the chapels had been reduced to dust – and we rejoiced, with tears in our eyes, to have left it in such good condition.

We stopped on the Place de La Republique. Five or six women stopped us in front of a house. We questioned them.  One of them told us they had been bombarded for four days.  You should see it on the other side of the town. What misery ! At the moment they are firing on hospital and the station.  But for the last three hours it seemed to be calmer.

In effect, the firing of the big siege mortars had finished.  It was now only field artillery doing its work – to which our own replied ceaselessly. And hearing it alongside us we felt almost happy, a sense of security such as a child feels in the night when a big person holds their hand.  But our speaker had scarcely finished her words when the mortar shook the air with its bou-bou-boum ! followed also by a type of long howling. The woman had been speaking to us nudged us sharply:

“Look in the air !”

The shell passed, in effect, over heads. We sensed it rather than saw it.  And straight after, about 300 metres away, at the foot of one of the avenues leading off the square where we had been, it exploded with a formidable blast. A bright flash.  The cloud rose, thick and white.

It was the hospital.

The Germans had targeted the building where our wounded were. Systematically, methodically, scientifically, they searched for it to destroy it.  This morning a spy was arrested who had been guiding their firing. He was taken away between two gendarmes….

The enemy occupied heavily entrenched positions on the plateaux that overlooked the town from the North and North-West. They had converted the former quarries into a solid and well-defended fortress, which they have protected with beams, fascines, and strong sandbags. They have placed their mortars there, and bombard us from that well sheltered position. Our men tried to get then out with fixed bayonets, but the position is strong. It will require heavy guns to reduce it.  All around the battle rages. But the soldier and the officers whom we questioned are confident. They are preparing something.

We had hoped to sleep in Soissons, but it was scarcely possible, and where could we have found anywhere open?  Those remaining inhabitants hide in their cellars when the shelling becomes too loud. When it calms down, they go out and look at the sky. They aren’t afraid, these women laugh at the danger when it has passed.  But the hotels are closed, and as night is coming, it is time for us to move on.

German shell, Soissons
The effects of a German shell that fell in a Soissons street. A gutted house and two dead horses.

On leaving Soissons, we stopped on a hill. From that point we saw the whole town laid out before us. As well as the sky trembling under this ceaseless bombardment, masses of rain fell as if in bucket loads, as we watched the bombardment. Above the hillsides whose verdant ridge stands out against a sky that was clearing a little in that direction, and which reddened the burning gold of the sunset, little bursts of white smoke rose and then dissolved slowly in the air. These were the guns, spitting their fire. Higher up, against the uniform grey of the clouds, the eye begins to distinguish the rapid arc of the shells, or the explosions of the little black bullets; the canister-shot bursting in the sky like fireworks; a white burst … then other shells, other bombs, more shrapnel. … We couldn’t leave this spectacle, but suddenly I thought of the ambulance lorries that we had just recently passed on the road.

We slept at Longpont (15 kilometres from Soissons), in a fine hostel which the brave owners opened for us, next to the magnificent chateau and the famous ruins, and all night we heard the guns, always dominated by the German siege mortars, bombarding Soissons, an open town.

* * *

In order to complete the picture, setting out from Meaux and covering the immense battlefield of the Marne, already strewn with corpses and marked by the smouldering ruins of twenty towns, looted and burned, we returned from Soissons to Paris via Villers-Cotterets and Senlis…

Ah! The awful and dreadful spectacle! Poor fine Senlis. The doves are no longer fluttering around its bell tower … The bombardment and fires have driven them away. Will they return?  We came there from Crépy-en-Valois, by the same route that the German horde had taken. A little before we arrived the countryside began to present the appearance that we have come to expect from battlefields: shattered trees, branches scattered over the ground, great round craters in the earth, dug out by shells…  It took barely fifty steps into Senlis before we know how things stood there.  The first house is a hotel-restaurant on a small square. It’s been looted and burned. The main street of Senlis, the Rue de la Republique, extends from this square.  From one end to the other, it is now a street of ruins, like something out of Pompei or Herculaneum, but also more terrible, as these are ruins from yesterday, not cleaned and polished by the passage of time, but still blackened by the flames, and full of still warm slag and rubble. One of the inhabitants, who had been in Martinique at the time of the destruction of St Pierre de Miquelon, said to me that this scene reminded him of that.[2] But here, this was not a natural disaster, the sudden eruption of a volcano which caused these ruins, this was men’s work, to the shame of humanity.

They entered Senlis and began by looting these houses, removing all they could take, eat and drink, and they threw into these houses special bombs that, when they exploded, caused fires.  That was all the way down the street. It wasn’t the bombardment that caused the fires, we would come to understand that more.  A cold and reflective willpower had presided over this devastation. The witnesses confirmed this, and in certain of the houses that had been spared they found incendiary bombs that had not fulfilled their role.  To the right, at the beginning of this terrible procession, a block of houses that had been consumed by fire. All that remained were certain sections of wall, in the middle of which were the roofs, staircases, and a heap of blackish rocks crumbled to ashes. … Detached houses, mansions, dwellings of the rich and poor, modern villas or elegant structures from the past, charming little eighteenth-century houses, simple and gracious, ancient monuments – nothing had been spared.  The fine hall of the Palace of Justice and of the Sub-Prefecture, an exquisite model of the architecture of the era of Gabriel and Louis, is no more.  As if to show what has been lost, only the façade remains, opened to the sky, showing its fine proportions, the regular openings showing where the windows and doors had been … The rest is destroyed, and this façade is held up only by a miracle, and, one could say, to give a few more days for those wish to come and witness this irreparable loss and the Germans’ infamy. … We pass on. One ruin follows another. How many are there? One hundred? Two hundred ? We haven’t made this sinister reckoning. There, where things had been to the put the flames, everything had been devoured. There are no half-ruins there.  Through the ruined entrance in a collapsed wall, we saw a little garden, a mass of flowers that still spread life and colour.  These flowers still living among all this mourning made the mourning even sadder – but the contrast is too cruel…

Palace of Justice Senlis
The remains of the Palace of Justice, Senlis

The cathedral was not seriously damaged: a passing shell broke off a pillar, snapping off a pinnacle, and its fragments made white wounds in the ancient stones made grey and green by the passage of time. But this is nothing, and we shivered when thinking of Rheims, whose Cathedral ….

This is the way that the Germans avenged themselves, on an innocent little town, one of our country’s adorable jewels, the charming smile of our Ile de France, in response to a shot fired, or so they said, by one of the inhabitants against their invading army. This man was shot out of hand, but they gave this reason without any proof.  At the same time, they took away the mayor, M. Odent[3]; they led him under escort to Chamant, where they dug a grave in front of him and shot him without trial. Afterwards, they buried him feet upwards, and that is how the body of this unfortunate magistrate was found, when various pious hands came to exhume him to give a more decent burial.

Look at how our enemies make war against us, in the name of their barbarous civilisation, in the name of a Greater Germany. A foolish as well as ferocious people, who existing only through and for war, find new ways of dishonouring it.’


[1]“The king’s final argument”. This was an inscription that had been used historically on cannon, typically those of the Spanish monarchy.

[2] Volcanic eruption of 1902.

[3] Eugène Odent, mayor since 1912. Executed by the German Army as one of seven hostages on 2 September 1914.

The poverty of utility – why we need a higher rationale for the Humanities

At the 2017 Telegraph Festival of Education at Wellington College, I spoke on the future of the Humanities. The posting that follows summarises my some of my key points.

A common modern rationale for the study of the Humanities is the acquisition of skills that can be applied to particular workplace occupations.

transferable skills

The incompleteness of the transferable skills argument lies in the assumption that the knowledge content acquired is, at the least of a secondary value and at worst interchangeable, redundant or irrelevant. The notion that Humanities knowledge is somehow chaff to the grain of skills presents, I would contend, a threat to the breadth of education over the longer term.  My argument is that to measure the value of the Humanities predominantly or solely by the yardstick of their workplace utility misunderstands their broader significance and value within society.  

We need to re-frame our understanding of where the Humanities fit in our society.  I think one of the greatest challenges to the Humanities has been what I would see as the unhealthy distinction between the “useful” skills to be gained, and the knowledge, which is so often seen to be disposable.

It is in the interrelationship of the skills (of ordered thought, analogy, critical understanding, expression, evaluation etc.)  and the knowledge content being studied that we gain emotional and intellectual insight into the human condition, whether we are studying the poetry of Ovid, the plays of Shakespeare, the art of El Greco or the Battle of the Somme.

Humanities knowledge has value to society as a whole, far beyond its utility to those occupations where it can be directly applied – e.g. academia, teaching, the heritage industry, the media, arts and publishing, among others.

The case for the societal value of Humanities content knowledge is not helped by the complexities of its own geometry. Whereas laws, principles and formulae give the numerical and natural sciences a self-reinforcing cohesion and universality, the Humanities lack canonical knowledge and pre-requisite foundations in the modern age. While much of scientific knowledge can be expressed through the universal language and processes of Mathematics, experimental method and coding, the Humanities rely on the more fragile and contingent communicative modes of linguistic expression and text.

Notwithstanding these challenges, my argument is that the Humanities, and the knowledge that we gain through their study, have a societal value and relevance that need a more coherent restatement.

Proposition 1

The Humanities give us a textured, layered and multi-dimensional understanding of the human experience – through text, space, material culture and the senses. These have the power to fire the imagination, curiosity and emotions of anyone, whether reading a poem, studying a building, or visiting a war cemetery.

Proposition 2

The Humanities help us to bridge the internal experiences of emotion, spirit, faith, imagination and understanding, and the external settings of political and social organisation, cultural expression, economic activity and associational life.  Studying the Humanities is an exploration of the connections between individuals and groups within infinitely varied relationships, physical contexts and periods of time.

Proposition 3

The Humanities can be a force for societal cohesion, emphasising the intersections and commonalities of the human experience that transcend barriers of nationality, race and social-economic status, while also seeking to critically understand what has divided us through war and other conflicts.  The Humanities have the power to unify through a shared emotional and intellectual response.


In my defence of the Humanities I am very mindful of the counter argument that in an era of austerity  these disciplines might be considered luxuries, or the preserve of the socially advantaged. At a time of vigorous debate over access to Higher Education, the Humanities may be seen in some quarters as a preserve of the privileged.

My argument is that the Humanities must be for all. Indeed, subjects such as the Classics and Art History should not become the preserves merely of those schools that have the best resources, and all pupils should have access to a broad curriculum.  We need Humanities Hubs  (as much as we need Maths Hubs), linking cultural centres such as museums, galleries and monuments, with universities, colleges and schools of all types – following the organic growth model of ISSPs and Teaching School Alliances.






What do independent schools gain from working with the state sector?

“What do we get out of this?” is a question that may be asked fairly by an independent school when any form of structured relationship with a state school is proposed. The potential benefits to state schools from such contacts have been well rehearsed – including use of facilities, access to subject expertise for sixth form and extension, guidance on university applications – especially to the most competitive institutions, and shared participation in a broad range of activities. But the case for the benefits to be gained by independent schools from these relationships needs re-affirmation.

All good teachers, whatever the context of their school, want to deliver the best outcomes for their pupils, both in fostering a love of learning and in delivering measurable progress. Independent school teachers have much to learn from collaboration with colleagues from maintained schools, especially (but far from exclusively) in areas such as differentiation, classroom management, and the effective use of data and monitoring. However, independent schools can also benefit from significant subject and leadership expertise located in maintained-sector schools, especially those that are Teaching Schools, which can deploy Specialist Leaders of Education (SLEs) as a form of visiting consultant. Perhaps independent schools could be more open to looking beyond their own gates when looking to solve issues in particular subject areas.

Secondly, at a time of significant curriculum reform across a range of subjects, independent school teachers can benefit from an exchange of ideas and resources with other teachers from their locality, whether through teach meets or other more formal arrangements. Teachers in independent schools should also contribute to, and benefit from, the professional learning programmes of their maintained sector colleagues.  A third area where independent schools can strongly benefit from such links lies in SEN teaching. While many independent schools do have very effective provision in this area, the awareness of non-specialist teachers can sometimes be limited to the less challenging end of the spectrum of pupil need. Access to the concentrations of professional knowledge in SEN and behaviour to be found in those state schools with expertise in these areas, would be of real benefit to many independent school teachers.  All independent schools should consider joining a Teaching School Alliance, which can open access to a range of opportunities for professional development and collaborative work.

One of the most compelling arguments for independent-state collaboration lies in the imperative of locality. Of necessity, independent school strategic plans tend to focus on the essentials of pupil numbers, curriculum change, and investment in future plant and buildings. However, structured contact with local state schools can help an independent school to contextualise its strategy in relation to a whole range of local educational, economic, social, infrastructural and environmental considerations. A school that is in sustained contact with local partners is a better-informed school, in which decisions and actions can be more alert to local trends. Here altruism and self-interest meet, as all schools rely on the goodwill and understanding of overlapping spheres of local interest, including the parental body, staff of all types, local contractors and suppliers, residents and municipal authorities.

The achievements of a growing number independent schools in areas such as Academy sponsorship and the leadership of Independent-State School Partnerships (ISSPs) and Teaching School Alliances is beginning to gain more recognition – notably through the Schools Together website.  Independent schools come in all shapes and sizes, and many will have only limited capacity and resources to engage with the state sector. In such cases we should be understanding of the constraints that limit engagement to sharing access to pitches or pools. But all independent schools can learn from state schools in various ways, and often teacher-teacher contact can be low-cost, sustainable and highly impactful.

Using French journalism in teaching The First World War: (1) The First Battle of the Marne

So much of our understanding of the First World War on the Western Front is derived from areas where the British Army was the predominant presence – notably parts of Picardy and the Ypres salient. The flooded shell craters and sunken duckboards around Passchendaele in the autumn of 1917 have become a visual signature for the war on the western front as a whole. This concentration on the British contribution to the Western Front is perhaps understandable, constituting as it does an on-going act of national remembrance as well as a core aspect of school history syllabus.

However, a very large proportion of the fighting across the hundreds of kilometres of the Western Front was undertaken by French forces. Save perhaps for the scenes of lunar desolation around the principal forts of Verdun in the later stages of that struggle, there is less familiarity with the imagery of the French sections of the front-line in British teaching and learning. British public awareness of the First Battle of the Marne – arguably the most decisive of Western Front encounters – extends little beyond the tales of Parisian taxis and buses pressed into service to rush French soldiers to the approaching front line.

As in all the belligerent states, there was a vast appetite in France for news from the front, and in France this was satisfied by an array of newspapers and journals. Maps showing changes to the front line and the dispositions of allied and enemy forces were common features – but also photographs and war art were particularly popular. French wartime journalism also shaped and reflected a commonly shared sense of outrage of the violation and occupation of territory. Civilian casualties, the destruction of buildings, and the devastation of historic monuments, all feature prominently in French print and photographic journalism of the First World War. This is where the French (and Belgian) First World War experience differs, as its farmland, infrastructure, civic and religious buildings and architectural patrimony were directly in the firing line for more than four years, as opposed to the occasional but devastating bombardment of towns such as Grimsby and Scarborough, and the largely ineffectual Zeppelin attacks on London.

In addition to 1.4 million military casualties, France’s civilian populations fell under a brutal occupation that included hostage-taking and reprisal executions, facts potentially lost amid classroom enthusiasm to root-out the “fake news” of false atrocity stories. This devastating experience shaped French foreign policy priorities during the peace negotiations of 1918-1919, and in the post-war period.

Of course, such journalistic writing needs to be read with an awareness of the patriotic and political priorities of the editors and proprietors, and of course the strictures imposed by the French state. However, a more nuanced approach can be taken to the evaluation of such material beyond those two tiresomely overused terms – “bias” and “propaganda.” In teaching and learning of History we need a more subtle and context-specific lexicon to capture the background, purpose and intended audience or readership for sources of all types.

Source: ‘Toward the Battle of the Aisne,by Gustav Babin, L’Illustration, 26 September 1914. (Text and photo captions tr. Alastair Dunn)

Commentary: L’Illustration was a popular fortnightly news magazine, first published in 1843, and which appeared throughout 1914-1918, combining large feature articles, maps, photography and war art. (By 1917 advertisements for prosthetic limbs were appearing regularly in the back pages.) In the aftermath of the First Battle of the Marne, Babin followed the line of the river from Lagny, just to the east of Paris, to the town of Chateau-Thierry. This sector, only just recaptured from the Germans, had seen highly fluid fighting that had saved Paris from direct assault and possible siege. A selection of the images that accompanied Babin’s text have been included.

‘Of all the epic battles where our men have fiercely driven the barbarian hordes out of France, exerting their heroism and spilling their blood without thought for the cost, we will only understand its terrible beauty from the accounts of those played a glorious role there.  There can be no passive observer of such valiance and self-denial.  And those who most fervently wish to bear witness these great deeds that are accomplished on a daily basis, are kept at a safe distance from the battlefield.  They are made to stay a long way in the rear, and have long journeys to collect evidence of the virtues of those who are fighting and dying for the Patrie. Also, they have to explore furtively as these routes are well guarded.

I was made to show my rather doubtful pass ten or twenty times between the gate and the far end of the entrenched camp at Paris. The last defences, and final checkpoint, are at the gates of Lagny.  That morning I found a bleak Lagny, normally so gay in the summer, full of the cries and shouts of the rowers on the Marne. That day however, it received a comforting visit from Monsignor Marbeau, the dignified bishop of Meaux. As we arrived, the bishop crossed the Marne on the temporary pontoon built by the engineers to replace the stone bridge and the railway bridge, both of which had been blown up as a defensive measure against the invader.  And, at his crossing, all hats were doffed and all heads respectfully bowed out of respect for the courageous attitude in the face of adversity, of this man of duty and priestly character.

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Mgr Marbeau, bishop of Meaux, crossing the temporary bridge at Lagny

It was only 20 kilometres from here that we found the traces of the enemy’s presence and of the scenes of the recent fighting at Haute-Maison and Pierre-Levée.  I think that after so many days have passed I can name these locations without fear. Also, this is not the place to give oneself over to retrospective strategy, but rather to note my impressions of the journey.

We were, it seemed, at the extreme left of the fighting on the Marne, at one of those points where the enemy began its retreat.  The Germans could do nothing other than show themselves. The inhabitants have kept the same horrible memories of the attack that are left wherever the Germans pass. They saw them arrive like the flooding that comes with a storm. For twelve hours they marched in close ranks, coming from the direction of Trilport and Meaux – cavalry, infantry and artillery. One of their officers who led them shouted, as they passed, “You wanted this! It was you who declared war on us. In eight days we will be in Paris, victorious.” On the following day they returned on the same road.  An important English force had been looking out for them. It attacked them on the plain at Pierre Levée, drove them back, diverting them towards Trilport and La Ferté-sous-Jouarre.  Farewell Paris!

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The bridge at Trilport, near Meaux, and a German car that had crashed into the Marne. German officers, unaware that sappers of the French Engineers had already blown the bridge at Trilport, tried to cross it in a car at 80kph. The car, after a prodigious jump, crashed into the river. Alongside the body of the driver were found those of a captain and a lieutenant.

If the inhabitants retain their memories of the labour duties that they were made to carry out, such as drawing water for their horses, the requisitions that that they were made to endure, and which were paid for in goods – in reality “scraps of paper”, in the phrase of M. Bethmann-Hollweg[1] – the landscape does not show many signs of fighting. These are not the great marks that one would imagine, huge craters opened by shells.  Only some tree trunks shredded by shells; and in the stubble some traces of bivouacs; on the road side, banks of earth by the sides of the ditches, and under the apple trees the ground strewn with green fruit brought down by artillery fire – then, here and there, a grave.

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A faithful dog on the common grave of ten soldiers of the 5th Infantry Regiment.
Falling during the battle of Esternay, near the village of Champguyon, ten soldiers of the 5th Infantry Regt. were buried side by side in the middle of a field. The regimental dog refuses to leave the graveside where those who cared for it lie.

There had not been time to loot the villages, and the inhabitants, who knew of the fate of certain of the neighbouring localities, which were stripped from floor to ceiling – Etrépilly among others – wondered at their good fortune. Alas, in other places the Teutonic savagery gave itself free rein!

La Ferté-sous-Jarre has known the worst ecstasies, a brutal occupation, bombardment – by friendly forces as the allies rushed to bring support – then the fires set by the Prussians as they fled.  Her two bridges are destroyed, blown up by the enemy keen to ensure themselves a relatively calm retreat.

The flow of the Marne, which is usually so charming here, is split by bent iron girders, and foams over the stones that have fallen on to its bed, and its green surface reflects the walls blackened by petrol-fuelled fires, the stripped roof of a fine building – a chateau that had been converted into a convent, burnt by the Germans as they retreated. On the verdant walls of the terraces where the inhabitants used to walk in calm reverie, you can see the bullet holes, and where the arcing machine-gun fire took down the willow and yew trees in the gardens by the river. One burns up, as if in response to a sacrilege, when recalling the ruins of this beautiful city, where Jeanne Poisson, marquise de Pompadour[2], once lived…

… Montreuil-aux-Lions was also under the German boot the week before last.  A horrific nightmare for this little township, clinging to a hillside, which has scarcely recovered.  At last the English arrived, following them headlong. A very heavy fight followed.  For almost the whole day a battery of seven guns, carefully dug-in, troubled our allies. Around 5pm, determined to finish this off, they gained a fix on these troublesome guns.  An aeroplane appeared in the sky, reconnoitring the fields and woods. One hour later it was all over: the seven Krupp guns were dead. The place won by a hard-fought struggle. The Germans buckled. In the neighbouring fields the grave mounds attest to the slaughter that took place there.

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Priests blessing the dead on the battlefield at Varreddes

We were told, “the guns are still there. Come and look at them.”  A steep path led to the middle of the copse which fully sheltered the battery. Trenches cut across the glebe field, littered with wreckage of all types, rucksacks, aluminium pots, dented and punctured helmets, bloody bandages – and also an album of clocks[3], the illustrated pages of which had scattered in the wind.  But the guns remained. “The English will come back for these tonight,” our guide murmured.  The seven gun carriages remained, and around them lay destroyed shells, peppered with shrapnel, allowing us to see the powder fuses in their torn-open casings. The man who buried them was there. He declared that not one of the crews survived. At each position, with dramatic gestures, he described the positions of the bodies that he collected.  This was fine work, and was a credit to the British artillery spotters. By the half broken wheel of one of the gun carriages was a grey forage cap, covered in dark brown blood, and punctured by a single hole. At least one of them had died without suffering.

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The chateau of Gué-a-Tresmes, near Congis, after the Germans had visited. The boots and personal effects of dead soldiers, now buried in the park, from an ambulance stationed there


We entered Chateau-Thierry as night fell. The melancholy of the fading light added to the sadness of the deserted town, which showed on all sides the evidence of its looting. Only those houses were the residents were present had been spared. And if we hadn’t found the hospitality of the most welcoming of hearths, that of the grandson of M. Alexandre Lenoir, founder of the Museum of French Monuments – we would, I think, have had to go without dinner and sleep beneath the stars.

At the foot of the garden of this blessed house, the river Marne was half-blocked by a strange wreck that, as we awoke, shone in the rising sun. When the Germans arrived a barge filled with petrol had been sunk there. And rather than see a cargo, precious beyond all others, fall into enemy hands, the boatman, a man of vigorous calibre, had set it alight. The barge burned like a match and then sank. A proportion of the petrol cans were saved and they are now used to store drinking water, a fortunate discovery in such times.

I can say that the homes here that had not been abandoned were, in a manner, respected.  Sometimes they were even protected, we even found proof of this delicate preoccupation at our host’s. On one of the fine paintings in the hallway, a large classical landscape with dense vegetation, a hand had written with the precise calligraphy of a sergeant-major, Bitte Nicht Plundern (“please don’t plunder”) a touching expression of the not so boorish side of the soldiers. We take this as an echo of the clumsy kindness of these people from beyond the Rhine, not long after they had tried to conquer us by steel and fire.

Since the previous evening we had heard in the distance the rumbling of the guns. Their low murmuring had attracted us; but hearing them a little closer now, we left in haste, as soon as we had woken.  It seemed that we were always following the same path. In this quick succession of places and horizons, the images became juxtaposed and merged.  Always on the battlefields the same shards of metal glittering in the sun, the same debris, traces of bivouacs and shredded tree trunks.  Once again the lost wander in these fields and woods, not knowing to whom to surrender, lying at the foot of the haystacks and behind hedges – the many dead without graves.

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The grave of a Zouave between Meaux and Chambry

At each stop the noise that assaulted our ears got closer. It was only in the morning that the rumbling was muffled, like that of a distant storm at the horizon of a summer sky. Now the blasts sounded more distinct ad clear, redoubled by the echoes. Soon the sound of engines no longer muffles them. And here on our left, our careful eyes have picked out, on the side of the hill, a white cloud rising into the azure of the morning sky. The smoke from a fire, we thought, perhaps a farm or another village burned by these savages. But the cloud faded soon after, replaced in the sky a little further away, towards the right, by one and then a second and a third.  Soon the whole crest of the hill in front of us was covered with plumes of smoke, vanishing as soon as they appeared, while the voices of the heavy guns growled ceaselessly. The battle was there, just a few kilometres from us, and we realised that evening, that we had passed close to the rear of our positions…

…After a brief stop at the next village, swarming with troops coming and going, where the long red cloaks of the Moroccan soldiers mixed with the grey coats of our gunners, it was time to head back. Travelling by roads flooded with English soldiers heading towards the front, we only got back to La Ferté-sous-Jarre with the greatest difficulty. It was fully dark by the time we returned, a sinister night of squalls and rain.  And at that moment not one of our thoughts was not with THEM, our hearts torn with anguish at the thought of THEM without shelter, under the inclement skies, after the rigours of the day.’[4]

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After the Battle of the Marne. German wounded treated at The Mairie at Varreddes


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Using the Babin’s text and images in teaching and learning


Portrayal of the Germans

Babin describes the Germans at various points throughout the article

Discussion point: Why do you think Babin uses a variety terms to describe the Germans ?  Why do you think his tone changes at different points in the text ?


Physical destruction

Babin gives significant attention to the physical destruction of the towns along The Marne.

Discussion point: Why do you think Babin focuses on this detail ?


The dead

Babin’s narrative makes frequent references to the dead.

Discussion point: How do these various descriptions differ at various points in the story?


Extension task

-What memorials and cemeteries are there today in the towns mentioned in Babin’s account ?

-Can you find examples of modern-day images of the locations and buildings mentioned in the article ?

-How does Babin’s account and accompanying differ from any other First World War journalism you may have read, perhaps British sources, or those written later in the war?

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[1] Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg (1856-1921), German Chancellor 1909-1917, who described the British guarantee of Belgian neutrality of 1839 as “a scrap of paper.”

[2] Marquise de Pompadour (1721-1764), one of the many mistresses of King Louis XV (ruled 1715-1744), who spent some of her time at the Chateau of Champs-sur-Marne.

[3] Presumably a photographic album of French clocktowers to help orientate German gunners in the flat lands of the Ile de France.

[4] The capitalisation follows the original French text.


I have reproduced these texts and images purely for educational purposes. I make no claim to the copyright of the original French text or the photographs.