The recently announced plans to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War put particular focus on secondary schools. Quite right too, but what about children of primary-school age? As military history per se falls very much outside the school curriculum, for a pre-secondary pupil to have any sort of interest in military history is something to be nurtured at home.
When I was my son’s age (eight), it was common to be interested in warfare. The Second World War was less than 30 years in the past and I seemed to be brought up on a diet of war-comics, castles, toy guns, toy soldiers, and war films. And I’m sure that I’m not the only one whose interest in military history was spawned in childhood during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
But things have moved on and tales of war are less accessible. So where are future generations of military historians going to come from?
That my son has an interest in military history is not surprising, given my own interests and the fact that he is surrounded by hundreds of books on the subject. But this is not something forced upon him (although he is encouraged when he shows an interest).
It is one thing to have an interest, but another to encourage and develop it, especially when the subject is a history of violence, death, suffering, and destruction.
So it is a subject that must be treated with great care. One must be vigilant about what is suitable for the young military historian and what is not. Fortunately, there are a great number of books on military history written especially for the younger reader – although it is impossible to limit reading to these alone (witness the monthly rush to get to my copy of Military History Monthly first!).
But as long as I vet things beforehand, reading a wider range of books is possible (we both enjoy looking at MHM together and the Osprey titles are firm favourites). The same applies to film and television (and it almost goes without saying that Horrible Histories are very popular).
Out and about, museums, castles, and battlefields are all popular places to visit. Castles and fortifications (and, as our last summer holiday proved, Atlantic Wall bunkers) are all exciting to explore. Battlefields, if easy to interpret, are popular, whilst there are several museums that we visit time and again. When it comes to museums, content that appeals to children – tanks and airplanes of course, models, waxworks, and dioramas, and anything ‘hands-on’ – is important, as is the opportunity to let off steam.
I look at museums differently now. An eight-year old’s perspective is certainly different and catering for pre-secondary kids encourages family visits. Of course, there needs to be a balance between the demands of the younger visitor and those of others (whilst the National Army Museum’s Kids Space is excellent, that it is at the expenses of the gallery telling the story of the first 150 or so years of the British Army is a problem).
Whilst an eight-year-old is too young to understanding the tragedy of warfare, visiting military cemeteries does lead to some awareness of its impact. My son’s interest also gives him some appreciation of who he is and where he comes from (seven members of our family fought during the Great War and four of them were killed). It builds a sense of why Remembrance Day is important and a sense of how things that happen in the past affect us today.
Only time will tell what direction my son’s interest will take in the future, but don’t forget that every military historian was once aged eight!
David Flintham is a freelance military historian specialising in 17th century fortifications.