09:49 Wednesday 18 December 2013

Pupils research town soldiers for First World War centenary project

Written byMARK MCKAY

AFTER almost one hundred years on from its outbreak in 1914, the First World War has passed out of living memory.

But with the war’s centenary just around the corner, year nine pupils at the Paget High School, in Branston, will research the absorbing tale of Burton soldiers who enlisted to fight for king and country nearly a century ago.

The class will base their work on the book Burton Boys, written Rob Cox, who died last month, aged 53, after a short battle with a brain tumour.

It is a fitting testimony to Mr Cox, who the school’s head of humanities Julie Butcher labelled as ‘the inspiration’ behind the project.

Mrs Butcher said: “We wanted to do something on the First World War and we came across the book.

“Rob said we could have all of his research so we have all the history of the boys.

“He came in and did about eight sessions with us out of the kindness of his heart.

“He kept the children spellbound.”

Each pupil will research a different soldier from Burton using Mr Cox’s research.

They will study what life was like for men in Burton before the war, where the men grew up and what school they attended.

Mrs Butcher said that studying the war in this way establishes a link between the pupils and soldiers they are researching.

She said: “Using the Burton Boys book is something which has really grabbed the children’s attention because it’s not just using a random soldier but someone from their own town.

“Some of the soldiers lived in the same area as some of the kids we are teaching so it has emerged that they have this connection.

“The class does not know what happened to the men yet apart from that some of them died.”

The school’s head teacher Don Smith said the project’s strength is that pupils are learning about how the war affected their own community.

He said: “It is a way of studying history that makes the First World War more real because the pupils are talking about their own town.

“Some of the pupils could have been related to them. They soldiers they are studying could have been their brother, father or sweetheart and that is a strength of the project.”

Many men from Burton who signed up to fight would have joined the 1/6 North Staffordshire Regiment which deployed on the Western Front in early 1915.

The unit occupied trenches in the Ypres salient – a section on the line which gained notoriety with British troops throughout the war as German positions overlooked the salient on almost all sides.

Specifically, the men were in a sector of the line at Sanctuary Wood and Hooge - where men from Burton suffered some of their first causalities of the war.

The pupils will visit these sites during a trip to the Western Front battlefields in March as part of the project.

They will also lead a remembrance service during the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate, in Ypres – a towering memorial of white Portland stone engraved with the names of 55,000 men with unknown graves including some from Burton.

The pupils will record their trip on a film to go along with clips of the workshops Mr Cox held with the pupils.

The idea of filming the project formed part of the comprehensive bid from the school to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), which approved £10,000 of funding for the project in October.

In fact, HLF considered the project’s scope so impressive that it has been highlighted to the Institute of Education as a prime example for other school’s to follow.

As a result, the project’s broad framework along with teacher packs have been made available to all other school’s in the county.

Stuart Workman, head of the school’s history department, said: “The idea is that this will go out to each school in Staffordshire which will have the chance to have a teacher’s pack that will explain how to set up the project.

“Using organisations and speaking with people with real knowledge and expertise that we want to draw from.”

That expertise will include Burton historian Malcolm Goode, who specialises in the First World War, filling the vacancy left by Mr Cox in supporting the school.

Mr Goode, a Stretton parish councillor whose grandfather and great-uncles fought in the war, said: “I was most heartened to see a school has taken the initiative to start this project.

“The school kindly invited me to try and fill Rob Cox’s shoes. We have his book but there are many more stories about men from the area.

“We want parents and grandparents to cough up anecdotes that have been handed down from generation to generation so that in five years time we can paint a picture of Burton in the First World War.

“There is a huge amount of stories, history and memorabilia just waiting to be studied. So if I can help this school and other schools to do that I will be a happy man.”

Ultimately, ensuring the men from Burton who fought and died in the war is the overriding theme of the project.

Mrs Butcher added: “We want to make sure that 100 years on the war is not forgotten and that the generation today does not lose sight of the significance of the Remembrance Day.

“Hopefully it will make the pupils appreciate what goes on around them because sometimes some people are not aware of what goes on in their own back yard.

“To understand the Burton of today we have to understand the Burton of yesterday. Then, they will understand why we live in the world we do today.”

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