Simon Bendry, the former Programme Director of the First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme based at University College London, talks about the programme that completed its work in March 2020.

Podcast Transcript

Welcome to ‘Mentioned in Dispatches’, the podcast from the Western Front Association, with me. Dr. Tom Thorpe (TT). The WFA is the UK's largest Great War History Society. We are dedicated to furthering understanding of the Great War and have over 60 branches worldwide. For more information visit our website at 

It is the 15th of June 2020 - and this is Episode 165.

On today's podcast I talk to Simon Bendry, the former Program Director of the First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Program, which was based at University College London. This program completed its work in April 2020. I spoke to Simon over Skype from his home in England. 

TT: Simon, welcome to the podcast. Can you start by telling us about yourself and how you became interested in the Great War? 

Simon Bendry (SB): Thank you Tom. My name is Simon Bendry. I suppose I've been interested in the First and Second World Wars since childhood. My interest really began with events such as D-Day when we did visits on family holidays - and then during my teens we did a number of family trips to the Somme  and Verdun. It was really during that period, while I was taking my GCEs and A-levels that I really got interested in the War. I remember picking up a copy of Martin Middlebrook’s ‘First Day of the Somme’ - and as with many people it was a slippery slope from then onwards. 

After that I studied history at University - and I suppose, that's where my real interest developed. My final year dissertation was on Kitchener's Volunteers. And from then - its always been a passion of mine. Having completed my university degree I went on to train to be a teacher but one of the things I'd also done whilst University was started to lead some battlefield tours. So I've always had that fascination with - not just the history, but also with the ground. That led me on to 14 years teaching history in secondary schools, leading annual battlefield tours, visiting battlefields during the holidays, reading profusely - all those things really just meant that since then the First World War was always always been a passion and then in late 2013, I got involved in the Centenary Bradford program.

TT:  So we're  going to talk about that program today which ran from 2013 and closed in March 2020. Could you start by giving us a brief overview of the program and your role in it? 

SB: The origins of the program date back to 2012 the outline for the Centenary was given by David Cameron at an event at the Imperial War Museum which members may recall. The original intention -  the original intention, was simply stated that schools would have the opportunity of visiting the battlefields as part of a  government funded scheme. 

During 2012 a tender went out for that program and it was to be funded by the Department for Education and the Department for Communities and Local Government. That tender in 2013 was one and awarded to University College London's Institute of Education. And at that point that they started building a team to deliver this unique and exciting program. And at that stage that I became involved. Being a classroom teacher, I saw an advert online for one of their National  Coordinator Posts and thought “wow, what an opportunity that would have been to be involved in this national scheme: First World War education” and all the stars aligned as it were. I applied for the role and the very beginning of January 2014. I joined the program and its origins as one of its national coordinators. Later on in 2017 I took over as Program Director and remained in that role until March with 2020 when the program finished. 

TT: So what was the initial thinking behind the program and what did it set out to achieve

SB:  So initially, really the outline of the  original programme was quite simple in many respects. It was to give it every state-funded Secondary School in the country an opportunity to send a number of students and a teacher on a fully-funded battlefield tour at the former Western Front. So in some respects, it was a very very simple idea. Very quickly, and very early on, it became apparent that it wasn't quite as simple as that. That this was our program, as by the Centenary Commemorations, and it wasn't just to be about taking people to see the sights. 

So as a result the program actually had three core elements:

The battlefield tours were in a sense the jewel in the crown. They were the centerpiece of what we were doing and they were the thing that attracted the media attention - and the like, throughout the period. But as part of the education program there were to be a number of other elements. 

The first was to be a professional development training for teachers. So for the secondary history teachers - in fact as it turned out - wider than just history teachers. But primarily for those teaching history and secondary schools. There was to be professional development training board, we developed both online - and ran a series of face-to-face events. So that became a very important part of what we did - and in fact the whole education program came to be shaped around engaging with the teachers - deepening their knowledge, broadening their subject knowledge and understanding of the First World War Period - to try to encourage them to reflect on what they were doing in the classroom - and therefore, hopefully, to improve the practice that was going on in the classrooms as part of this whole Battlefield tour experience that we would then take them on. 

But then the third element, that grew out of this was to be a community-based project - that the students themselves would develop and lead on. So that whilst it was only ever going to be a small number of students from each school, the idea was that they would then go back into their schools,  back into their wider communities, share their knowledge, share their new understanding - and get those involved - and that part of the program became hugely successful as time went on. 

TT: So what's the scale of the program? How many people participated and what was its overall reach ?

SB: So they the centenaries battlefields tour program  - just to give you a sense of the scale of the funding was £5.3 million - for the entire education program. We were then were granted an annual extension in 2019 to run for an additional year beyond the original intention - an additional million pounds was granted for that.

The program in the end -  8,500 teachers and students went on a four day battlefield tour of the Western Front. Over 2,000 secondary schools from across the country took up the opportunity of being part of the program. A further 900 secondary schools engaged either through CPD programs for an additional. So taking up to 2,900 schools engaged through the program website or  through our resources materials. And the reach of the students legacy program was estimated to be in the region around 15 million people

TT: What challenges did you face in the implementation of the program?

SB: One of the real challenges we faced early on was engaging with schools. There are plenty of keen teachers, but it was actually fitting this in - and ensuring that this fitted well into the curriculum as it sits at the moment. So we partnered with the University of Exeter and Northumbria in 2013 to conduct a survey of teachers - a national survey of teachers - about how they taught the First World War. To ensure that everything that we were doing was going to be a really good fit with what teachers were doing in the classroom. But also identifying areas that they wanted to develop, areas they wanted to work on - and get that real understanding. So that was one of the early challenges - was making sure that what we were doing was relevant to the teachers who are going to be engaging with the program. 

Another issue we had as time went on, was engaging with those teachers who already felt they knew stuff about the First World War - giving them an opportunity of feeling that this wasn't a basic level understanding - that there were were lots of tiers to this - that those new teachers coming into the profession with very little subject knowledge felt that they were able to access the program. But also those teachers perhaps we've been teaching for 15 years, or more, who knew the First World War and understood how to teach it or felt they were also able to access and engage with a program - so it had to have some lots of  layers to it. And we also found whilst on tours, it was quite often those teachers, who ran their own tours already who quite often in the beginning, voiced that well I do my tour already -  it would be interesting to see what you do in their thought that I suppose, they put a lot of pressure on a us to make sure that what we were doing stood out  was different and that they saw the value of what we were doing up above and beyond it. Just being another Battlefield tour.

Those were some of the early things. I suppose one of the other big issues for us because of  the scale of this engagement with 8,500 people -  people we had to have a number of people working for us. It wasn't just something I was able to do on my own or a small number of us at UCL would have deliver independently - and therefore we had to build a team of guides - and historians who could help us - to ensure that we could run at the capacity we were required to. Often running say six coaches at any one time for example, and therefore ensuring that on every single one of those coaches you knew that there was consistency, you knew that there was quality, you knew that the guys who were doing it had the subject knowledge themselves, both for the sites, but also the broader context of the First World War - to ensure that everybody on every coach got the same quality education input. But also  benefited from the program. So that was one of the other things.

I suppose. The last thing was the events of circumstance and recording this in April of 2020. We understand how events can impact upon how we do things but even throughout the centenary there are different things that had an impact on how we were able to run, on where we were able to go and things like that. So back in 2015. There were the raised terror threat in northern France and in Belgium had an impact - certainly on schools who were willing to travel at that time. We saw a large number of schools who were uncomfortable traveling at that period - and therefore they stepped back away from the program.

So we had issues, interestingly enough in the middle of the period recruiting - but then 2017, 2018 into 2019, we saw massive increase in demand for what we were doing. And then we almost had the opposite issues of actually being able to fit everybody in. And the capacity to actually run and fit all those people in. Often actually hindered and limited by the number of rooms that were available in Flanders and northern France - for actually accommodating people. 

So all these logistical issues running in the background, as well as the events of circumstance that overran us as well. 

TT: So how will how did visiting the battlefields affect the children who were involved?

SB: A whole range of experiences one of the things we tried really hard on from the very beginning was to move this away from solely being an emotional experience for them. We didn't just want them to go out there and come back with a sense of “well, everybody was killed, therefore it  was all sad, and isn't it important that we do remember everybody because for the last four days we've been told how important remembrance is”. 

We worked really hard from the very beginning to create a genuine educational experience. 

So the tours were shaped around inquiry-based learning - the idea that each day would have its own inquiry and its own question the students would work on. Therefore rather than approaching the battlefield tours, of going right where we going to go. And now what are we going to do when we get there we flip that around and do it the other way so we looked at it from right? Okay. What is it? We want the students to focus on? And which sites are the best ones for doing so. So we built our tours in that way and I think that really helped because what we were encouraging the students to do was to engage with the sites - not just be taken there, not just to go there and to say that the guide had told them everything about it but that they were actually engaging with those sites.

So for example with the day we'd spend in and around Ypres, we'd focus on the impact that war had on ordinary people - and that allowed us to look at a whole range of different factors, a whole range of different sites that allowed us - allowed the students more importantly, to think about how these sites - what it taught them what they could take away from each of those sites in relation to the question they were looking at. 

In the same way when we went down to the Somme. Again, we wanted to move away from this idea that the thing is the evidence of the battlefields, the sites themselves, is largely based around the cemetery and the memorials. And quite quickly students can become very overwhelmed by that and therefore again, we wanted them to engage with the locations - with the landscape and placing those cemeteries within that context. So what we would do down on the Somme for example is look at the question of where was the Battle of the Somme really a disaster in 1916 ?

And in doing so we’d choose a range of sites that allowed the students to work through the narrative of the battle. So starting at the 1st July - what happened here? Why was it a disaster? What went wrong at the beginning? What were the mistakes of the early days - of that early period? What evidence is there of that? Can we understand why things went so badly on this particular part of the front? So really getting them to engage with - not just what happened, but also the way in which the landscape played a part in that. And then, later in the day, getting them to look at the events. Tours in September for example and how by September 1916 things were changing but getting them to really almost lead the learning so that they themselves were using a range of different skills. So using Maps, using the landscape, reading cemeteries, being able to piece together the memorials and the evidence that are presented within those - so therefore really engage with those locations and not just be led around them. So we very quickly, as I said, tried to move away from this idea that students were just -  it was an emotive experience - but actually one that engaged them that got them thinking - and got them to reflect on these sites and their value today. 

TT: And do you think you managed to tackle this idea of “the poet's, blood, Blackadder, bungling generals and general carnage”, that we all see from people's perceptions about the First World War. Did the program help tackle those stereotypical ideas? 

SB: I really think it did and we always used to approach that from a number of different ways. Certainly out on the battlefield we always had lots of opportunities if just dipping into lots of those myths associated with the First World War. From the very beginning. We had an academic advisory board made up of a number of the leading academics - many names would be recognised by many of the members - who were able to guide us on current historiography and understanding, and being a student of the period myself I felt I always had a reasonable grasp of that as well. So, I always found it important to challenge some of those myths and stereotypes. Certainly, for some of those teachers, whose subject knowledge perhaps isn't as broad as is detailed - just by the very nature of teaching a one  thousand year curriculum - they're not all specialists of every period of history. And therefore we always took the opportunity to drip feed those bits in there. So opportunities -  just to pause. For example, one of the generals who were buried at Lijssenthoek Cemetery at Poperinge -  and just to pause there, at one of those, and talk about the role of the General. Should a General have been getting killed during the First World War? And why the Chateau generals? Why would a general base himself in a large country house miles from the lines? What was his job? And with that starting to really challenge that - that definitely came through in the feedbac we received from teachers.

Very often teachers towards the end of the tour said to me - dozens of times over the years -  I'm gonna have to change how I do this. You've really made me think, and certainly to spend and that often came in at the debt on the date on the Somme day - when we'd spent a day on the Somme Battlefield things and changing and moving on well: the 1st July is a disaster, things are changing, new technology, new tactics - really bringing that in and getting them to think about how things are adapting and changing -  the number of teachers who were very reflective and coming back and saying, “Hmm, I really got to think about how I do this in the future because you've really got me thinking” - and saying “I now understand why these things took place as they did - I now have a better understanding of how things took place”. 

And one of the other ways in which we addressed the myths and misconceptions was through our professional development program with the help of the WFA. 

One of the things, whilst on the professional development day, we would spend a lot of time thinking about how teachers taught the First World War and how they could do different approaches to teaching it. But a key part of that day - for me - and it was coming through strongly in the feedback was  - we gave the teachers an opportunity to listen to an expert. Through the WFA we used a number of yet speakers, such as Taff Gillingham, who would come in and talk to the teachers for an hour - very often looking to address some of those misconceptions, some of those myths - and the teachers really did find that valuable - that opportunity of engaging with the experts - that opportunity developing broadening and deepening their own subject knowledge, which hugely valuable and yeah based on the feedback not just about ‘dotalee’ - also the written feedback we've received from teachers.

The vast majority and I mean the vast majority of teachers who have been involved in this program have gone away and said, I'm really need to think about how I teach the First World War in the future 

TT: What's the wider impact on teachers in the communities once these tours come back. 

SB: I mentioned earlier the community-based projects that we encouraged the students to lead on, but the teachers to support. The origins of those always started whilst on tour. It was something we spoke about most when we were away with the students - getting them to think about what they might do when they get back to school to engage. Now the range of these was vast: we had some students who would write a piece for the school newsletter, or for the local paper. We had other students who went on to local radio. We had a number of projects that went on town-wide, regional-wide, nation-wide. Even, one or two that  started reaching international audiences - where the students just looked at different ways of engaging. And that was fantastic to see, because we always encouraged schools to feedback to us from what was being done and had hundreds of these projects come back to us - and the students really were being inspired by what they were seeing: what they were learning on the battlefield tour - to take that back in.  

A lot of it was based around local soldier research. 

On a tour, each student will be given the name of an individual from their community and they would conduct some research whilst on tour visit, graves, memorials and start to engage with the name on that at a  micro-level and very often projects were built around that so students were going back in talking about these individuals and then putting them in that wider context. But as I said, the range of projects in the end was vast and the reach that those projects had was phenomenal as I said an estimated counter over 15 million in communities across the country. 

TT: And what does the Battlefield Centenary program teach us for future such programs? I'm obviously thinking about the forthcoming anniversary of the Second World War. 

SB: It's an interesting one to reflect on obviously there was much work done at a national level within government to start to draw upon some of these lessons. I think certainly within the program one of the things that really struck us was that you've got to give opportunities to young people to be part of some of these national commemorations. These national events. 

I was approached back in 2015 by the Department of Community Media and Sport - who were the central government department behind the centenary - and they were looking at ways in which to engage with schools and with young people. It became very clear from my conversations, then in some 2015, that a lot of what had happened to date had involved uniforms, flags, marching bands, the traditional ceremonial things that Britain does extremely well when commemorating big events, but very rarely at any of these events had young people had any involvement. One of the great things was, for example, at the Somme 100, we were able to really drive young people to the fore  of those events. So, Westminster Abbey, for the vigil, that took place in the lead-up to the 1st July. Young people were at the forefront to telling the stories - overnight throughout that vigil and standing vigil over the grave of the unknown Warrior and again at Thiepval on the 1st July it was young people again, who were at the fore That was one of the things that we really found some of the biggest projects that came out of schools were those schools that took those opportunities to be involved. So I really think that whilst thinking about the ceremonial element of commemoration - whether it be with the forthcoming saw a Second World War in time. Yes, we do that incredibly well, but we really need to think about making opportunities within those big national events for schools in young people to be involved as well. 

And I think the other thing that really struck me was also taking the time to engage with the teachers - making sure this was something that they bought into, that they understood -  it wasn't just a flash in the pan or a bolt on - it was something that they felt they could see the value in in this both for themselves. But also for the students that they teach for their schools and The wider school community 

TT: Finally Simon. What is your new role now? 

SB: Obviously the program ended in March 2020, so yes, yes sadly despite much campaigning to try and keep the program going. It was decided that it had off rule being a Centenary project and that  it had. Everything and more that it was set at set up to achieve. The program came to an end in March of 2020. However, some elements of it will be continuing, perhaps under some slightly different shapes and guises. I'm now moving to be the Education Programs Manager with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and she'll be starting in late April 2020 and they very much looking to build on the legacy that's been created engaging schools communities with the First World War and obviously with the Second World War as well. My new role  will be moving I suppose. He's from a national role to a commonwealth role in some respects. It's very exciting. 

TT: Finally where can people find out more about the Centenary Battlefield tours program. 

SB: So what we've been able to do is to create a legacy website. So online there is the Centenary Battlefieldtours website - there we've archived a lot of the resources and materials that we created for schools. We've archived our podcast series and we've also ensured that there is a record there of what the program achieved between 2014 and 2020.

TT: Simon. Thank you very much for your time. 

SB: Tom. My pleasure. All the best. 

TT: You have been listening to the ‘Mentioned in Dispatches’ podcast from The Western Front Association with me Tom Thorpe. Thank you to all my guests for appearing on this addition. The theme music for this podcast is George Butterworth’s ‘The Banks of Green Willow’. It was performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Chrish Russman and produced by Biz records. This recording is part of a collection of orchestral works by Butterworth performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and supported by The Western Front Association. This is available from all good record stores under the record code BIS 2195.

Until next time.