Bringing the drama of the war back to life on the stage

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How are schools commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War? Andrew Robinson went to one Leeds school to find out.

AS pupils at Corpus Christi Catholic College stage their production, Lest We Forget, the whole school is decked out with an endless number of hand-made paper poppies.

In the main hall, the cast is singing It’s a Long Long Way to Tipperary and Pack Up Your Troubles.

They are songs that meant something special to the ancestors of pupils, and teachers, and even today the popular songs of 1914-18 still pack an emotional punch.

As the Last Post sounds to signal the end of the musical production, the stage lighting captures hundreds of poppies as around 300 parents in the audience fall silent in contemplation.

The production, which followed the fortunes of a family during the war, prompts pupils, teachers and parents to look back on their own family histories and many memories are rekindled among the older generation.

The school’s head of performing arts, John Atkin, says: “Children have been asking parents about the war and that’s how history is kept alive.”

Brothers Liam and Eoghan Duffy, pupils at the Halton Moor school, told Mr Atkin that their great great uncle was in the Merchant Navy and had been lost at sea.

Year 10 pupil Olivia Mather-Walsh later brought to school her grandfather’s medals which she had borrowed from her nan. Her grandfather, Roland Mather, was 
a gunner in the Royal Horse Artillery.

And Caitlan Washington, also 
in year 10, revealed that her great grandfather, John William Garbutt, fought with the Seaforth Highlanders.

Caitlan, 14, says: “We are focusing 
on soldiers in history so I looked him up.

“He was injured and needed a metal plate in his head. He survived the war.”

The centenary also holds significance for Mr Atkin, whose grandfather, Sydney Parsons, was the youngest of 13 siblings from an Irish Catholic family from York.

Seven brothers signed up. Remarkably, all of them survived 
the war.

“He was in Kitchener’s first 100,000 and trained with a wooden gun. He was only 17 and, to begin with, was put in charge of some horses. He was on the Somme and was in Germany until 1919.”

Mr Parsons passed down stories of his wartime service and they are still remembered by Mr Atkin. “One of the upsetting things was the roll call after a battle. Names would be called out and there would be no answer.”

When the Second World War started in 1939, his grandfather “just cried and left the room,” he says.

The Lest We Forget production, says Mr Atkin, has stimulated debate about the Great War, although some pupils initially confuse it with the Second World War.

Mr Atkin told The Yorkshire Post: “The pupils are genuinely interested and some are beginning to be inquisitive about it. Some of the scenes in the play are quite funny and others are sad. We also looked at propaganda and did the play from the perspective of both English and Germans. Some of the pupils didn’t know about conscientious objectors and this has been a massive opportunity to educate them.”

Headteacher Steve Mort believes that remembering the Great War is vitally important for a faith school.

“The pupils study religious education and touch upon moral issues surrounding war and peace and what can we learn from these experiences. The pupils learn about the morality of war and Christian teaching about peace. They learn about role models and those who lead by example in promoting peace.

“We can learn from war and learn from the mistakes and about being a peacemaker and a role model. We make it relevant in their own community and they learn about positive relationships, seeking resolution and forgiveness.”