History teacher Gareth Williams and librarian Donna Saxby from Kingham Hill School in Oxfordshire, talk about how they teach the First World War to their pupils.

They outline how they encourage pupils to research former pupils from the school who served in the Great War using primary documents. They also have a regular programme of battlefield visits to France and Belgium. The interview features conversations that Gareth has had with some of his pupils on how they have found the research and what challenges they faced.


Tom Thorpe [00:00:33] It is the 26th of June 2022. This is Episode 261. On this week's Dispatches Podcast, I speak to teacher Gareth Williams and librarian Donna Saxby from Kingham Hill School in Oxfordshire about how they teach the Great War at their school. Donna and Gareth spoke to me from their office in Kingham Hill in Oxfordshire. Gareth and Donna, welcome to the Dispatches Podcast. Could you start by telling us about how you became interested in The Great War and how all this started at Kingham Hill School? 

Gareth Williams [00:01:14] Wow. Okay. So, well, I've been a battlefield guide since 1999, and I got into the Great War with an amazing teacher at my school, Anthony Seldon - you may have heard of him. He was tremendous; he was my history teacher and took us to the battlefields when I was 14 and it lived with me. So and then at university I studied French and so had the opportunity to teach in France for a year. And I happened to be, by chance, just underneath Vimy Ridge in the school that I was teaching in - which was amazing. So I got to learn well. I knew the place from before and I made friends with the Canadian students on a Friday in a Saturday night out in Arras. And exchanged a few drinks and such and they said, oh, well, if you're interested in the First World War and you clearly know a bit, why don't you come ... up on a Wednesday afternoon, that's when the Kon-Tiki bus comes through and you can knock on the window and you can take them around some Australian sites and they'll bung you 500 francs, to which I thought I will do. Obviously 500 Francs sounds like a lot of money these days, doesn't it? But of course it wasn't really. And it still isn't. But anyway, that's how I got into it. And then I've been guiding since then become a teacher and then I've been taking school groups and adult groups over to the battlefields since then. And I kind of got into what we did with the school here, and I may have browbeaten the headmaster into it, but he thought it was a great idea. So we take ... the kids from the third form, which is year nine [third form for us year nine - in the real world]. And ... we take the whole year group and we do five days on the Somme and in Ypres around Arras, which is amazing. And then everything we do from that is kind of linked off that. Does that make sense? 

Tom Thorpe [00:03:16] That makes sense. Donna, how about you? 

Donna Saxby [00:03:19] So from my point of view, I'm a librarian, but I also teach digital literacy, and that's the first and third form. So some people are like, what on earth is digital literacy? But it's basically getting the kids to use technology in a ... productive and an ethical way. So I'm always looking for projects to do with them.

Kingham Hill and Latimer House Great War Memorial, The Chapel. Photograph by Gareth Williams for the Imperial War Museum

 The Great War just was just such a great project for us because we've got the Roll of Honour up in chapel and the kids look at that, but they just see those names and it doesn't really mean anything to them. So it's a way of bringing those men alive. As they're doing it, they are obviously doing the primary research they're thinking about - I'm always insisting that they don't use secondary sources right to the very end, to right to the very end - so it's all about them producing evidence for what they're saying. So rather than just assuming that everything is true on the Internet, they're actually looking at these primary resources to say, actually, I do know that that is a true thing. You know, and here's my evidence for it. So that's where we start. And that's ... we also do work with geography as well, but the Great War Project is the big one for the Third. 

Tom Thorpe [00:04:31] So what is the Great War Project and what do you teach about the Great War at Kingham Hill? 

Gareth Williams [00:04:36] And so we have ... an integrated approach to teaching the First World War here at Kingham Hill. So I've been given carte blanche, very kindly, with the history lessons for the Third Form. So in terms of what we do - we're quite Western Front centric, and the only reason for that is because we don't have time to do everything else, but we want to do it in great detail. And so ... we use Richard Holmes's Western Front television programmes as ... a backbone to the course. And then I teach them bits and pieces that are linked to that, but we're very much centred on the British experience of warfare during ... the war, the learning curve of the British Army, the kind of stuff that one might think they don't get taught in lots of schools, shall we say. And we ... steer clear of the mud, blood and poetry and football matches in no man's land. Because ... as Donna is saying ... we want to stick with things that we can be sure are facts. And then ... the point is, we certainly, from my point of view, I want to teach the First World War accurately so that ... pupils get a really clear view of what really happened, because that's the best way to honour the chaps who went before us. Does that make sense? If we make stuff up or .. pedal myths then that ...  dishonours their memory. So that's ... my way of looking at it. In addition to that, with the the ... English Department do First World War poetry. But I try and still steer them clear of Owen and Sassoon. They do a bit of that. But actually it's you know, it's a very varied canon that they ... teach and which I'm very pleased with. And then obviously that backs up what we do in history. We've got the digital literacy, which we'll speak about probably in a bit more detail in the precision of what we do. And but we also are partnered with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission - with their 'eyes on, hands on scheme'. And I think we're the first school in the country to do that, which is amazing. Where ... we take pupils out on activities and we look after local isolated war graves in the local churchyards around here in the leafy Cotswolds, which is ... a real honour to be able to do that. And that all links together to make this ... integrated curriculum. Plus the tour as well, but we'll talk about that probably another time. 

Tom Thorpe [00:07:09] Which leads me to the third question is why research the Great War and not other conflicts? 

Donna Saxby [00:07:16] Literally, one the kids asked you that today didn't he? 

Gareth Williams [00:07:17] Yeah, he did, exactly, that's right, yes. So one of them said, why don't we do much about the Second World War? I said from ... our point of view, what we really want to get them to do with digital literacy is for them to get their hands on primary sources. And a lot to do with the Second World War is not quite so accessible from the classroom. So, you know, for example, Second World War diaries, they're ... at the National Archives, but ... they're not digitised yet. Do you see what I mean? Service Records are still ... kept locked away. So that's quite tricky. But also, and there's the link with our war memorial and just as it was across the country, really there's a greater list of names from the First World War than there is from the Second World War. And we're kind of latching onto that. So what's amazing is that because of our school's history, a lot of the boys, when they left, went to Canada to a farm that was owned by the founder of the school: Charles Edward Berry Young. And so and when they joined up ... In the First World War, they'd joined the Canadian Infantry - which is great for us in terms of records, because, of course, none of that got lost ... in the Second World War, whereas obviously the service records, as we will all know, for those of us who are researching - they are very hit and miss, aren't they? Because obviously they were ... lost in the Blitz. And so basically it's the fact that there's more to get their teeth into. And there's a passion on my part to make sure the First World War is taught properly rather than incorrectly, shall we say. 

Donna Saxby [00:08:59] I think ... with the memorial and with us also having the diaries of the founder, as Gareth says, there's more evidence. But I think there is more of a personal connection as well. So that ... because we know more about those men and that the kids know that ... literally some of those men would have sat in this classroom and been taught, you know, and that's quite incredible for the kids to think that they might have slept in the same room. They might have certainly been taught in the same room. So that's a really powerful connection. 

Tom Thorpe [00:09:33] And I think you've already touched on this, but have you researched the role and experience of former pupils in great detail? 

Gareth Williams [00:09:40] And yeah, we have. I mean, with the and it's all leading up to a book, which one day will be written, and as these things always are There are 63 men on our War Memorial and a good couple of hundred more who served, but we don't have as much detail on them. And it's harder to find. But, you know ... there's some amazing stories. There's one in particular which I'm looking at ... in detail at the moment. It's a lad, actually, who was missed off the war memorial. We only picked this up because his brother was killed as well. But Walter Metcalfe, who was in the 1st Battalion of the Ox and Buck's died in Mesopotamia. And he was at the Siege of Kut. He was taken prisoner by the Ottomans, and died on the march into captivity. And what particularly grieves me about him is the fact that his name is on the Basra Memorial - or should be. But obviously ... the Basra Memorial is, as many of us will know, is not in great repair. And so his name is not actually on that, probably because the locals have melted down the panels. And he's not on our war memorial either. So I feel ... a real duty that we need to commemorate him and add him on to our War Memorial. And that's only come up from the research into his brother, Arthur Metcalfe, who was killed at the Battle of Givenchy in June 1915, along with a mate of his from another boarding house. It's just amazing that it all links together and the kids really appreciate the fact that there are so many links to the boarding houses ... to the upbringing that the boys had before. You know, that we're researching. And there's so many things we can get ... almost distracted, like rabbit holes, we can go down. 

Tom Thorpe [00:11:41] So what skills, knowledge and experience does this research and work seek to achieve in the pupils? 

Donna Saxby [00:11:48] I was thinking about this and I've rattle it down to four things: (1) is intellectual curiosity, so I want them to really get engaged and really, as we said before ... go down those ...  rabbit tunnels and just really have a look around and really think, oh, well, if that's the case, then, you know, what about that? And you know, what will happen to the families afterwards? You know what? You know, why did he sign up? What was his life like when he was a child? What was his life like when he was at Kingham? And so that kind of intellectual curiosity is really important. (2) Also, the fact that they're exposed to primary resources. So the primary resources we have got, we're really lucky we got the diaries from the founder. So when the boys applied and entered Kingham, he would write in the diary, so we've got those and we've scanned them. So they can see the story of what these boys I mean, most of them were and one or both of the parents had died. They're incredibly poor. It basically comes to Kingham or the Workhouse very often. And just getting that story, which was very helpful, is that it was to give us the date of birth. So that also helped just one of them later on. And we used the Censuses so 1901 and 1911 censuses and then later when we look at the Canadian Archives, we've got the full military record. Sometimes we have the WO363. We certainly have the War Diaries for all of the men. And so it's really about them understanding that you've got these primary sources, and that's pretty good evidence for backing up what you're saying. (3) Another thing I wanted to get into them is resilience. So you will find times when it is difficult. And actually I actually rate them men by how hard they're going to be to do so the kids choose which guy they're going to do. And I have a kind of 'Red' :  don't even go there because they're very difficult : 'Amber' :  which is like it's going to be a bit tricky, but if you're feeling a bit like you want to stretch yourself, then go for that. Or then 'Green', which is fairly straightforward, although actually none of them are actually straightforward. So there will be times where it's like, I just can't find that thing. Like, why can't I find it and build in that resilience of them? It's okay to hit a brick wall, you just need to try and get around the brick wall. So that's really important. (4) And then finally I say that personal connection. So to have that thing where you think about that, they were in the same house, these men were in the same space that you're in. They fought in the Great War but actually, they were also before that they were in the same place that these pupils are, they were playing rugby on the same fields. They were sleeping in the same dorms, they were being taught in the same classrooms. So I think it's also that they have a personal connection. I would say as well, they do do one section of the presentation that they make. They do a personal, personal connection which is exploring their own family history or a history using a key, forgetting the name of the website. 

Gareth Williams [00:14:54] A Street Near You

Donna Saxby [00:14:55] A Street Near You to locate someone from where they live in terms of, you know, it was someone that lived on my street or near where I live that died in the Great War and then of  course going off ...  

Tom Thorpe [00:15:07] Which segways neatly into my next question is, 'what impact does this research have on the pupils?' 

Gareth Williams [00:15:12] I think it's fascinating. I've just taught a lesson with the third form now, and for some of the pupils who might not necessarily be as engaged or motivated in history generally ... There's one lad in particular, obviously, we won't name him, who comes to mind, who really lights up when we talk about the First World War. And he's a lad who probably struggles in lots of ... different other ways with his studies, but he loves talking about it. And he really gets it. And he's throwing himself into the research project as well. So it can really draw out pupils like that ... I think it's a really great thing. What we do as well ...  when they've completed their research they will ... They will then present to a panel of teachers - a two minute presentation on what they found, and they also talk about their sources and what they have you. And we will then mark them on that, because this is part of their assessed work. But the best two or three, we then get them to present to the Cheltenham & Gloucester Branch of The Western Front Association, which is really ... It's a great evening. And Peter Gill, who's the branch chairman there has been really great over the years. I've known from when the branch set up and he let me do similar things with pupils from another school. So the pupils, however, get a little bit nervous about presenting to real people who know things about the Western Front Association. But actually, as we will know those, those of us who are members of the Association, as soon as a teenager will turn up to tell the assembled group about their research. You know, they're all a bunch of pussycats, aren't they? And really, you know, our pupils have got the audience eating out their hand, asking them all kinds of questions just to ... because they want to encourage the kids as well. It's such an amazing thing to do. Do you see what I mean? So in lots of respects, it brings -  it draws the pupils out and it helps them ... get over nerves in dealing with speaking to a group of people. But the best thing is when those kids who have presented to The Western Front Association, they then see the enthusiasm of other people. It makes them even more enthusiastic and they want to do more, which is what we want as educators, isn't it, really? 

Donna Saxby [00:17:51] I think it was a just addition to that. I think it also exposed just what it was like to be a historian. So, okay, if I wanted to go and research something else, I could then apply those skills somewhere else as well. I think that that can also be a message. 

Tom Thorpe [00:18:06] So how do pupils find the research? 

Gareth Williams [00:18:10] Well, what we've done is, because we can't get them all in the same room at the same time, is that I interviewed a few of them yesterday, and here are a few of of those interviews I have for you just to hear a little bit of what some of the pupils had to say. Okay, Charlie, tell us a little bit about your research. 

Charlie [00:18:35] It's quite difficult, but also interesting because he has a brother who has a similar name to him because his middle name is I'm researching author Henry Kirk and his brother's name is Harold Kirk. So lots of the websites get confused between which is which. So it's interesting to find out later, try and find out which one is which. But it's also kind of confusing because I have to find out which one is which. And I presume then by mistake sometimes I end up researching the other one. And then I have that I look for the fine details of life service numbers. 

Gareth Williams [00:19:03] All right. That's really tricky. So. So the service numbers are helpful on that. Yeah, very good. Okay. What can you tell me about your man? 

Charlie [00:19:11] He was an interesting fact. He was offered the position of Lance Corporal, but denied it. I'm not sure why. 

Gareth Williams [00:19:18] Interesting. 

Charlie [00:19:20] And he was part of the 24th Battalion in the Canadian Army. He lied about his age, even though he was, like one month too young or something. 

Gareth Williams [00:19:31] Right. 

Charlie [00:19:32] And he was part of like a five battalion advance, like towards the end of the war, which then was successful. Like pretty much successful, except he died in a place called Gaia Court. 

Gareth Williams [00:19:49] Yes, indeed, indeed. I mean, what's fascinating about his and his involvement was he died on the 8th of August, 1918, which was supposedly the black day of the German army - that's the day when the British actually really started to push the Germans back. So he was involved in something really important then. So that's great. What sources of use for your research ? 

Charlie [00:20:15] Mainly, the Canadian War Archives and Find My Past and a bit of Commonwealth War Graves. 

Gareth Williams [00:20:24] Thanks so much every so much Charlie, that's great, well done, good luck. So, Eliza, tell me how you found your research? 

Eliza [00:20:30] I found it quite difficult because it is quite hard to figure out who's who, because obviously it's quite a lot of the same names. And I found it quite interesting. You could see all this information on people and it was quite a few years ago and I thought most people wouldn't have that information recorded, but they seemed to. 

Gareth Williams [00:20:54] Great and tell me a little bit about the man you're researching. 

Eliza [00:20:56] So I'm researching Victor Thatcher, and he came from quite a poor household, like many of the boys did. And he had three siblings, two younger sisters who weren't named and a brother who came to school with him. But his mum, she had a job, but it wasn't very well-paying and his dad committed suicide and he had diabetes and depression. Well, he died. He died, I think, quite at a young age. 

Gareth Williams [00:21:26] Okay. So it's a difficult background for Victor here. Have you found out anything about his time in the Army yet or is that still ongoing? 

Eliza [00:21:33] I think he was a corporal. But I haven't found much out yet. But I'm still having a look at that in The War Diaries but the writing is quite faint . 

Gareth Williams [00:21:42] It's tricky, isn't it? Exactly. You know, you kind of wish they had a sharper pencil, don't you? Really? Yeah. Okay. Lovely. Thanks very much, Eliza. That's lovely.  So, Emily, tell me, how have you found the research? 

Emily [00:21:56] It's very enjoyable. And it's interesting finding out information that people probably wouldn't find out if they didn't get the chance to do this. And then there's parts of it that are difficult, especially if you haven't got as much evidence of the person you are researching. And so, for example, if they're not in the Kingham Hill Records, then you're already it's more difficult because you haven't got why they came to the school and things like that. And also some of the handwriting can be quite hard to read. 

Gareth Williams [00:22:28] Tell me a bit about the man you're researching. 

Emily [00:22:30] So I'm researching Edward Gillings, who doesn't have any sort of records in Kingham Hill. So we believe that he was at Latimer House ... - after 1910, because that was when the archives ended. And he went to Canada to be in the second Battalion of the Canadian infantry and died in Rouen in France. 

Gareth Williams [00:22:50] Okay, fine. And have you found out anything about his service at all? 

Emily [00:22:54] Not really. I think the only thing mainly that I find out so far is the fact that he signed up to be in a battalion of Oxford Bucks and was kicked out because they didn't believe he was going to be a good soldier. 

Gareth Williams [00:23:07] Well, now that is very interesting. Okay. Excellent. And where did you find those records? 

Emily [00:23:12] So many on Find My Past, which is one of the sources we've been using in sort of census records and also some of the ... War archives. 

Gareth Williams [00:23:21] Great. Thank you very much. Recording. So, Maggie, tell me, how did you find your research? 

Maggie [00:23:30] I found it really, really interesting because it's really cool. You can connect to them kind of because there are so many things at the school, like there are pictures and all of the different diaries and things, which is really interesting. 

Gareth Williams [00:23:42] So tell me a bit about your man. 

Maggie [00:23:44] So I'm researching Noel Bradford and he came from a very poor family and his father was a bus driver, I think, but he abused his mother, so his mother had really bad mental health problems. So she left the children alone and went to live with her mother, who was actually also very old as well as she was 87 and quite ill. So the children were left alone. And one of his younger sisters died, I think three years old. Wow. And the other two went into work very, very early. And he and his brother came to Kingham.

Gareth Williams [00:24:19] Excellent. Well, that's it. So they had a rough upbringing, but then obviously coming to the school helped them out a little bit. Yes. Now, Noel Bradford's quite interesting because he went into the Canadian infantry, didn't he? Now, why was that, do you know? 

Maggie [00:24:35] No, I'm not sorry. 

Gareth Williams [00:24:36] You don't get that. Yeah, that's fine. That's not a problem. And have you found out anything about his war service yet at all? 

Maggie [00:24:42] Not really. I know he was a private, and I know he died going over the top, but. Okay. 

Gareth Williams [00:24:47] But more to find out. Absolutely. Yeah. Great. Lovely. Thanks so much, Maggie. That's lovely. So, Rawdon, tell me, how have you found the research? 

Rawdon [00:24:56] I find it quite surprising because I didn't realise that a lot of children that came to this school came from very poor backgrounds. So the person I'm researching is called Albert Adams and both his parents died. So he was living with his brothers and sisters in London. So he would come down on his own, which, you know, I found very surprising because I thought lots of people came from very wealthy backgrounds. Yeah. 

Gareth Williams [00:25:27] Okay. And have you found out much about his war service at all? 

Rawdon [00:25:34] He was in the London Regiment. He lied about his age, as lots do. I haven't found out what he actually did in the war, but he died of wounds in France. 

Gareth Williams [00:25:49] Okay. All right. So the research is ongoing, isn't it? Yes. Okay. So you're going to be moving on to use what kind of documents next, do you think? 

Rawdon [00:25:58] Well, I need some more information from the Census, because it's very hard to kind of find your man because, you know, Albert is a very, very popular name. 

Gareth Williams [00:26:07] Of course, and particularly Albert Adams as well as that's common. And then are you then going to be going on to using The War Diaries as well? 

Rawdon [00:26:16] Yes. So I've started looking at those, just looking at different things about him. I'm trying to find him by trying to read what it says. But once I got that. So it's. 

Gareth Williams [00:26:26] Brilliant. The handwriting is tricky, isn't it? Yes. Yes. Excellent. Lovely. Well, thank you very much indeed, Grand. So, Taylor, how have you found doing the research? 

Taylor [00:26:37] I found it really surprising. It's really hard. I really don't know how guys do it for a living. The thing that kind of surprised me the most about it. It's like how many people lied about their age to fight. 

Gareth Williams [00:26:55] Yeah. And tell me. That's great. Tell me a little bit about the chap you're researching. 

Taylor [00:27:01] And researching Alfred Wheat. He's like 25. Mm hmm. He was, like, in the 10th Battalion. Brigade. I don't recall what the Battalion is called actually, but, um. Yeah, I only found things with his family. 

Gareth Williams [00:27:21] Okay, well, tell us about his family. 

Taylor [00:27:26] Like, Mum. Well, actually, I found that she had a job, okay. Yeah, but he had  like five brothers which was weird.

Gareth Williams [00:27:35] All right. Well, thank you very much. Say that. That's lovely, Grand.

Tom Thorpe [00:27:38] Thank you, Gareth, for bringing in the pupils. So my final question is, where can people learn more about the project and Kingham Hill School? 

Gareth Williams [00:27:45] Well, obviously we are ... on the internet, so WWW.Kinghamhill.org.uk is our school website address. And then we're building a little blog entitled Kingham Hill in the Great War, which is some of my research, and we're hoping to get some of the pupil's research on there and ... showing ... what we're doing. Recently there was an article that I wrote that's in The Western Front Association Bulletin. Eve Wilson is the Education Trustee and she and I have been working together to ... get that article out. But we're also keen to ...  Get a network of similarly minded teachers if they are out there -  and if you're listening to this and you think this is the kind of thing I want to be involved with as well, or I'd do this kind of thing with my school, then please, I would urge you to get in touch. My email address is G.Williams@KingdomHill.org - but you can also get in touch with Eve as well. 

Donna Saxby [00:28:56] And if anyone wants to see the website that I use with the kids so where I kind of fund their research is open facing it's WWI.Kinghamhill.org so what will one do? What can you help that org and they're going to email me. 

Tom Thorpe [00:29:14] Thank you both very much for your time. 

Gareth Williams [00:29:16] Thank you. Okay.