A few days ago, I spent the afternoon at Laurieston Primary School in Falkirk.
I went there to find out more about an unusual book that was compiled by the headmaster 100 years ago, and I and some of the primary six pupils looked through the album together. I have never seen another book like it.
The volume, which is in excellent condition, is mainly filled with photographs of soldiers. They were all pupils of Laurieston at one point and they all served in the armed forces during the First World War but every photo is different. One man poses in his kilt complete with the kilt-cover designed to keep off the mud of the trenches; another picture shows three brothers lined up together in uniform not long after signing up.
Loading article content
The clues to the ultimate fate of the young men in the book are quite subtle but if you look carefully, you can see the word "fallen" handwritten beside some of the pictures. This was how the headmaster at the time, James Mather, recorded the deaths of his pupils. It was what he did throughout the war, resulting in a remarkable record of how the conflict affected a small part of Scotland. Of the 166 men in the book, 34 died.
The pupils who looked through the book with me were all 10 years old but they had a good understanding of what happened to their predecessors a century ago. One of the pupils, Skye Stewart, now lives in the house in Falkirk that was once inhabited by the three brothers pictured in the book: James, Alexander and Robert Reilly. We know what happened to them: only Alexander survived.
Tomorrow, in The Herald Magazine, the life stories of the Reilly brothers and other men from the book - including the remarkable James Fitz Morris, an air ace from Polmont - are told in more detail but what struck me about the stories was how they engaged the pupils: the walls of the corridor outside their classroom were plastered with essays, poems, pictures and other projects inspired by the First World War.
The Great War isn't usually taught in this way in primary schools - in fact, it isn't usually taught in primary schools at all. But it should be, especially this year, the centenary of the outbreak of the war, when there are so many excellent resources available including on Glow, the site run by Education Scotland, which has also carried out some training on WW1 for primary teachers.
The Scottish Government has also put up some cash - £2000 per school - to fund visits to the battlefields, but the money is limited to secondaries. When the First Minister announced the cash last year, he said many of the soldiers who were sent to war in 1914 were not much older than school age. In fact, some were younger than that, including a few in the Laurieston book, one of whom was 14 when he signed up (he lied about his age).
That was one of the facts that struck me and the pupils as we looked through the book: they were only four years younger than some of the boys in the book. This stuck in the pupils' minds and it was obvious that telling the story of war through the stories of individuals was an excellent way to teach the history of the conflict. Perhaps more schools could now follow Laurieston's example.