Girls Learn About the Causes of the First World War
Monday, 16 June 2014
The Girls’ Division History department arranged for pupils to receive a lecture on the First World War from Professor Martin Alexander. Professor Alexander is Professor in International Relations at the University of Aberystwyth, specialising in modern French history, strategy, military history, and intelligence. He was asked by Mr Owen, the Head of History in the Girls’ Division, to give this talk to Sixth Form and GCSE pupils currently studying History, and to Year 9 pupils considering it as an option for next year.
Professor Alexander began with a discussion of the two major alliances that existed in Europe in 1914, and how, instead of preventing conflict as they had in the past, these alliances brought about the First World War. He talked about the public’s initially enthusiastic response to initiatives such as the ‘Pals Battalions’, but he emphasised to the girls that most historians believe that this came from patriotism rather than xenophobia. Professor Alexander put forward the idea that, rather than ‘popular war fever’, or even alliances, the real cause of the First World War was Europe’s political power elite, conspiring behind closed doors to cause the conflict.
This led Professor Alexander to discuss the cost of the war. He spoke about the impact of heavy artillery, which killed more people than any other kind of weapon during the War, and human cost involved. He also mentioned that during the First World War, over a million horses and mules were enlisted, and more than 256,000 of these animals were killed during the conflict. This kind of information, seldom included in the curriculum or even the history books, gives the girls yet another perspective on the First World War.
However, on a wider scale, there was a cost to the countries involved as well. The British, French and German societies and economies were wrecked by the conflict. Interestingly, many of the political power elites responsible for causing the War, including the leaders of Germany and Austria-Hungary, were ruined by it. As a result, the power-structures of the world changed completely in the Twentieth Century. Professor Alexander reminded the girls that Britain and France were major powers in the Nineteenth Century; but after the First World War, this influence shifted to the USA and Russia. As Professor Alexander said at the end of his lecture: “The First World War changed everything for everyone, including all of us.”
At the end of the talk, the girls were invited to look at a number of genuine First World War artefacts, which Professor Alexander brought with him. These included a French captain’s official hat or kepi, a French Great War Cross which would have been awarded for bravery, and several medals which belonged to members of his family: two British War Medals and two Allied Victory Medals.
The girls inspected a box of shrapnel, a British brass shell case for an 18 pounder made in 1915, a nose cap fuse capable of delaying an explosion for up to sixteen seconds, and two shell fragments from German 77mm shells. Professor Alexander told the girls that he had personally found the smaller of the fragments in 1976 on the Somme battlefield.
The girls thoroughly enjoyed listening to Professor Alexander about this fascinating subject. It was also a great opportunity to look at and even handle some artefacts from the First World War.
As part of the History Department’s centenary commemorations, many of the girls who attended the lecture will be travelling to Belgium and France this October during half term to visit the battlefields at Ypres and the Somme.