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Living WWI History for Year 10 Girls

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Dave Thirlwall from Danelaw Living History in York visited the school today to give the Year 10 girls a talk on the realities of the First World War. Dressed in a replica of the army uniform that British troops would have worn in the trenches and speaking from the point of view of an ordinary soldier, Mr Thirlwall focused on the day-to-day reality and the people. The dates and names of important battles were left aside in favour of stories of what the soldiers – from all of the countries involved – would have dealt with during World War One.

The talk took place in the Girls' Division theatre, with a backdrop of metal sheeting to simulate the interior of a German trench. This was covered with props, replicas and authentic items from WWI.

Mr Thirlwall warned the girls about the “ballyhoo” surrounding the centenary of the start of the First World War, and reminded them often to remember the soldiers who suffered and died on the battlefields. He said, “We are accused of ‘Blackaddering’ the First World War, but this is how it happened.”

He discussed the disgusting conditions in the trenches and the dangers the soldiers faced, from snipers to disease to freezing temperatures at night. His story of one battalion, who lost three men on the way to the Front Line, brought home to the girls the myriad dangers that the soldiers faced. He spoke about the food they had to eat, which was mainly canned, and the malnutrition that German troops in particular faced at the end of the war when their supply chain was cut by British blockades. He also showed them various pieces of uniform: the French army's light blue uniforms, which provided no camouflage in the trenches; helmets which could not stop a bullet, but might protect from falling shrapnel; and the British army's greatcoats that became water-logged and lethal in the plummeting night-time temperatures.

Mr Thirlwall also showed the girls the diverse range of weapons employed during the First World War. He showed them the Webley service revolver issued to British officers, and the rifles given to troops. He also had a number of different grenades, from the oval hand-grenade with a pin and handle that is familiar from films and television, to the German ‘potato masher’ style which was superior thanks to the additional leverage afforded by its handle. He even had a genuine – but disarmed – machine gun. This allowed him to explain the grim origins of giving someone “the whole nine yards”: the saying originally referred to an entire belt of machine-gun ammunition, as each one was that length.

The girls were also able to take part in bayonet practice wearing German or British uniform – and although this got a laugh from the audience, it also allowed them to see the minimal training the soldiers actually received.

The presentation contained a lot of information on a difficult and potentially distressing subject, but the girls were completely engaged throughout the afternoon. The talk brought the dry dates, facts and figures to life, and impressed upon them the human cost of the conflict.

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Dave Thirlwall and two of the Year 10 girls, wearing German and British army uniforms

Dave Thirlwall and two of the Year 10 girls, wearing German and British army uniforms

Hande hoch! - one of the girls taking part in bayonet practice

"Hände hoch!" - one of the girls taking part in bayonet practice

The backdrop and costume really helped to bring the trenches to life

The backdrop and costume really helped to bring the trenches to life