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In recent years, school trips to Auschwitz and the battlefields of the 1914-18 War have become common. They provide an unrivalled opportunity for young people to understand the march of history far more tangibly manner than text books or teacher-talk. They offer a unique perspective on the massive human suffering of the twentieth century.
Students never return from such trips unmoved. In many cases they can be profoundly affected.
It is also almost inevitable (and entirely desirable) that, however serious the educational purpose of the activity, groups of young people, away from school and home – whether skiing in the Alps, theatre-going in Stratford, or touring 1914-18 battlefields – will have fun. The company, the humour, the bonding are indeed another of the purposes of such trips. The relationships so built play a key part in the effective learning on the trip but also on the return to school.
When therefore a teacher from a Scottish school, on a recent trip to France and Flanders, tweeted, “Great fun, kids a pleasure, great banter! #proud#trenches2014,” he was articulating a perfectly valid synopsis of a highly successful educational experience. (The Herald, 23 May 2014)
The response however from the local branch of the British Legion was that, “It was an inappropriate thing for a member of staff to say in such a situation.” It might have been expected that members of the British Legion, more than any, would have been aware that precisely jokes, fun, banter and utterly irreverent, often quite black, humour, sustained Tommy through four hellish years of war. They might also re-read writers such as Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon, two veterans of the War whose poetry and prose are peppered with ironic humour, countless jests and banter which was far from appreciated by the contemporary guardians of public morality but which echoed the perspectives of those who had served.
What did the British Legion expect? Teenagers gravely serious for an entire week?
Even worse however was the local authority’s reaction to the Legion’s intervention. The tweet was removed and replaced by a picture of trenches and the bland phrase, “Quite humbling” and a gratuitous apology offered “for any offence caused by this inappropriate tweet.”
Eight years ago I visited the battlefields; saw High Wood on the Somme where my paternal grandfather (who was out from November 1914 until September 1918) was wounded; paid my respects at Brown’s Copse, near Arras, where my maternal grandfather was buried in 1917. I was indeed humbled in the face of such suffering and the loss of life on such a scale, but a plethora of other emotions affected me: anger at the waste, joy at the fact that at least one of my grandfathers survived, sadness that the other had not and that my mother had never known her father, laughter at some of the tales I had heard of my grandfathers.
My contemporary sadness (and anger!) is that a local authority, instead of backing its teacher and young people to the hilt, surrendered to censorship with a stock, facile phrase and an unnecessary apology.
For what the British Legion sought to do, and succeeded in doing, was precisely censorship. It betrayed ignorance of young people and of how they grow and learn. It was a demand, from an unusual source, for the application of politically-correct language. It betrayed an ironic ignorance of the banter and black humour of the very men it purports to honour.
The best response from the local authority to the Legion’s self-appointed censors would have been silence but if some response were felt essential, an appropriate comment might have been, “We are delighted that our students and their teachers enjoyed a stimulating educational trip to the battlefields of the 1914-18 War, are proud of our teachers who supported that excursion and welcome the fact that even on an educational trip exploring serious issues, fun and enjoyment underpinned effective learning.”
Alas, the pressure from the po-faced triumphed. The PR-obsessed general staff has again over-ruled the educationalists in the trenches.

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