Harry Patch has died: is History becoming harder to teach?

August 14th, 2009 by Emily

The last month has seen a stream of interest in the two World Wars as these events begin to fade from living memory. In the UK, the deaths of Henry Allingham and Harry Patch, our last two veterans of World War I, have sparked a time of national remembrance.

Meanwhile, in Germany this week, a 90-year-old man was sentenced to life imprisonment for war crimes in a case thought to be 'the last of its kind'. This latter event shows how long human memory can be, because the success of the case has relied on the survival of eyewitnesses.

As a History student at university, I was immensely privileged to be able to speak to people who were involved in the Second World War. My grandparents and their generation were testimony to that period. Allingham and Patch were internationally important for this very reason: they put a human face on an terrible era of history now defined for many by war movies and fiction.

The battlefields, memorials and abandoned camps all still remain. These have a power of their own - no-one can visit Tyne Cot, the largest war cemetery in the Commonwealth, without being awestruck at the sheer scale of the massacres. These are however very rooted to their context and can't easily be evoked in the classroom.

How can History tutors, both now and in the future, compensate for the loss of eyewitnesses? Many children claim to find History 'dusty and boring'. How can we ensure that written records, documentary evidence and other resources engage students of History to bring out its human aspects, and hopefully encourage more pupils to take up secondary History beyond the compulsory age of 14?

Categories: History