Teachers’ notes: Men’s roles on the front line

These suggestions provide ways for pupils to imagine and investigate the lives of men who went to war during World War One.

Pupils will have the opportunity of using primary source material to conduct their own research.

Joining up

Subjects: art, music, history

Useful link

Ask pupils to study examples of wartime posters that encouraged men to join the army. Pupils could produce their own versions of these posters or design new ones.

As the children work on their designs, you could prompt their reflection with questions such as: 'How do you think men going off to war felt in 1914 (all volunteers) and in 1916 (when conscription was brought in)?', 'Why were conscientious objectors often treated harshly?' 'What do you think was the worst thing about becoming a soldier?' 'Discipline? Food? Being away from home? Being scared?'

The class could listen to, and then join in with, the 1914 recruitment song 'Your King and Country Want You'. The song, with its famous chorus 'We don't want to lose you, but we think you ought to go', is available from online video-sharing sites. How does the song make the children feel? How do they think fathers and brothers hearing it back in 1914 felt when they heard it?


Subjects: English, history, ICT, media studies

Useful links

  • BBC Primary History - Famous People: Winston Churchill was born in 1874. He was 40 years old when war broke out. How did the war affect his life?
  • BBC Primary History - Famous People: Dylan Thomas was born in 1914, the year war broke out. How did the war affect his life?
  • BBC Schools: Walter Tull's story

Encourage pupils to study one of the BBC Schools World War One Famous People profiles. What kinds of information are typically included in biographical profiles? The class could make a list (for example, birth and death dates, achievements and quotations).

Challenge pupils to find out more about a significant man of the time. The children could use a range of books and websites to conduct their research. Good subjects for study include Albert Ball, Jack Cornwell, Generals Haig and Kitchener, Wilfred Owen, Lawrence of Arabia, Walter Tull, David Lloyd George and Rudyard Kipling.

The children could go on to create short presentations about the lives of these men. They might watch Walter Tull's story and take a similar approach, shooting their own 'talking head' style video adding music, digital effects and polishing the finished result using video-editing software.

Medals and memorials

Subjects: citizenship, history

Useful link

You could ask the children to use books and websites to find out about the Victoria Cross and other medals which are still given for bravery (for example to British soldiers fighting in Afghanistan). Why do pupils think medals are awarded and memorials are built?

You could visit a local war memorial and take a note of some of the names listed. Can the children find examples of members of the same family among the names of the fallen?

The National Archives holds an extensive index of medals awarded during the period. Pupils could search the medal archive to find individual Tommies who served in the war. Each child could take one or two names from their local war memorial and search the archive. The free information available is brief but includes the individual's regiment, rank and service number.


Subjects: English, history

Useful link

Pupils could view some short clips of newsreel from the war years that show men at war. Many online video-sharing sites also carry suitable clips.

Newsreels of the period were silent, of course. You could ask groups of pupils to choose a clip and script a commentary to accompany it. Groups could then play their film clips to the class and read out their commentaries.

Letters home

Subjects: English, history, geography, ICT

Useful links

You could ask pupils to search online for examples of letters that soldiers wrote from the trenches of World War One. There is a growing archive of letters, diaries and photographs at Guardian Witness.

The children could identify on a map the places from which some of these letters were sent. What is the most distant location they can find?

The children could make selections from the letters they discover and record their own readings of them. They could use video-editing tools to marry their audio track with a suitable montage of digital photographs.

Pass book

Subjects: MFL

Useful link

Soldiers had to carry a passbook, as did anyone working on the front line or in military establishments, such as hospitals. You can see find example of a passbook online, for example on BBC News.

All countries at war were anxious about spies although civilians did not carry identity cards as they did later in the World War Two. You could devise a passbook for a nurse or doctor, to contain details such as name, date of birth, hair colour and eye colour.

Boy soldiers

Subjects: mathematics, history

Useful link

During World War One, a number of boys lied about their age to serve in the armed forces. One way the authorities tried to guard against this was by introducing a height restriction. How effective would this have been in preventing children at your school from signing up?

The children could conduct a height survey, measuring their fellow pupils' heights in feet and inches. Are there any children (boys or girls) who are taller than the minimum requirement of five feet, three inches (1.6 metres)?

By July 1915, the height restrictions had been revised to allow for 'Bantam battalions' to be formed. Now, a recruit had only to be five feet tall (1.5 metres) to sign up. How many pupils at your school would have been tall enough to meet that requirement?

Pupils could look online for photos using a search term such as 'World War One recruits'. Can the children spot any new recruits who look younger than the official joining-up age of 18? The children could take a screenshot of some of these images and conduct a survey, asking a range of people to estimate the ages of the recruits in question. What is the average age people guess?

Basic training

Subjects: PE, history

Useful link

The class could view a clip of newsreel that shows some of the simple exercises new recruits had to complete during their basic training. The British Pathé website contains some good preview clips that are free to watch. In a PE session, pupils could replicate some of the simpler exercises. Do they think the clips were suitable preparation for trench warfare?

Sapper's story

Subjects: science, history

Useful link

Using books and online resources, pupils could discover more about the work of the sappers, who dug the trenches and tunnels at the battle front. The Tunnellers' Memorial webpage has a wealth of resources, including first-hand accounts, letters, photographs and a song to learn.

Pupils could try a key part of the sapper's art by estimating the distance and direction of sounds. You could place a quietly ticking clock covered by a cushion to muffle it, somewhere on the floor of the school hall. Participating pupils should be blindfolded and asked to point to the watch using just the evidence of their ears. Encourage the pupils to press their ears against the floor to hear how well the ticking sound passes through solid objects. How far away do they estimate the clock to be?

Can the children find a simple way to make the sound clearer? For instance, is the ticking clearer if a listener uses an inverted cup between ear and floor? Is it easier to correctly locate a sound's source if three different listeners co-operate to pinpoint it? With practice, do the listeners improve in their ability to estimate the direction and distance of a sound?

Messines Ridge

Subjects: geography, history

In July 1917, sappers blew up 19 mines along the Messines Ridge in Belgium. The explosion was so loud, it was heard over 150 miles away in London.

Where else do pupils think this explosion might have been heard? Pupils could locate Ypres and the Messines Ridge on a map of Europe. They could use the scale of the map to draw a circle representing a 150-mile radius around Ypres. Are any other major towns within this circle? In which other British towns might this explosion have been heard? Which French or German towns might have been within earshot of the blast?

Time warp

Subjects: English, drama, history

What would a man from 1914 make of today's world? You could ask pairs of pupils to script a short science fiction play in which Jack, a man from the war years, is transported 100 years into the future. How will he react? What will he do? What will he want to know?

In addition to all the technological changes he sees, what does Jack make of the social ones? How does he react, for example, to women in senior roles in the workforce or to women with the vote?

After rehearsal, the children could perform their scripts for their class or for a school assembly.

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