As it turns out, Christmas is actually an excellent time to teach about The Great War, a.k.a. the War to End All Wars, a.k.a World War I. Not Christmas Day, of course, but Christmas time. I’ll get to why that is in just a minute.
I was nervous on how I was supposed to approach this subject with the kids. We’ve been talking about wars since the beginning, so that concept is not new to them. But the enormity of the death and destruction of this war, plus is relative proximity to our day make it more raw and painful. My grandparents, who have held my two eldest children as babies, were born during this war. There are a few people (a very few people) who are a still alive today who lived through it.
I didn’t know how to even begin.
So we just went to the library and I picked up a bunch of different books on the subject and decided to take it from there. Causes, Spies, Vehicles, Weapons, Women and the War Effort, and general WWI books are now lining our “book wall.” Truthfully, I hoped to read just one or two and let the kids read the rest on their own over Christmas break. I told my 4th and 2nd grader to go ahead and read and look through any of the books whenever they wanted. They didn’t have to wait for me to read the book to them first. (And my 4th grader actually did it. I think he’s read about 4 of them on his own so far. He’s just kind of like that.)
But that is not a very good way to actually cover something as large and significant as The Great War.
So we started. For two days we read about the causes of the war, one book each afternoon. They were lengthy books, so we stopped every few pages and recapped, plus I asked questions to make sure they were understanding. (Holy Moly, can you imagine asking a child to understand the causes of WWI? It was kind of complicated (insert heavy sarcasm). But we got the major themes. Fall of the Ottoman Empire, power and land vacuum, 5 great empires vying for control and dominance, alliances, rivalries, very strong nationalism, and significantly advanced technology.) I remember learning about WWI in my high school advanced history class… but all I remembered was Archduke Ferdinand and the Blank Check from Germany. (Hey, at least I remembered something from high school. I’d say that’s pretty good, and kudos to my awesome history teacher, Mr. Cavanaugh.)
Anyway, to study war and history that way makes everything very impersonal and distant. Emperors, Queens, Czars, Generals, people in high places making decisions about imaginary lines and such. We needed something to make the war more meaningful and more personal.
(This is where the Christmas part comes in.)
On day three I decided we would just spend the rest of the unit reading through a book called “World War I For Kids,” and the kids could read the rest of the other books on their own. This particular book, so far, seems pretty comprehensive and has little activities and projects. I figured we could read through each chapter and if the kids wanted, I would help them do the projects. While flipping through I saw a reference to Belleau Wood which jarred something in the back of my mind regarding high school (again) and Garth Brooks and sent me to youtube for some “enrichment” material. (Garth Brooks is SO enriching 😉 )
What I found was the humanity we needed. (This is only about 3 minutes long… please do watch)
And this companion video as well… (also about 3 minutes or so and almost just as powerful.)
Despite all the horrors and the death, disease, the stalemates, gridlock, noise, suffering, pain, terror, and immense and immeasurable loss, there was also humanity. Since it is Christmas time now (as I type this on December 22, 2016) this brought back to life for us many of those brave and good men who, not really wanting to fight anymore, were left to do the bidding of the generals, the emperors, the queens and the czar (well, for a time – that’s the next unit!) They were people like us and our dads and uncles and grandpas and neighbors. There is goodness in everyone and the human family line connects us all.
So that is what we talked about. We talked about Life. And we talked about People. We talked about how things are complicated and how sometimes (oftentimes… ok, probably all times) people don’t really understand the big picture. But if we can always remember our humanity and our relationships as children of one Heavenly Father who loves and cares for us all equally, and if we can treat all people as such, we will be doing pretty well.
Who said history wasn’t relevant in today’s world? I see this as such an incredibly important life lesson, and history is an excellent fountain of information from which such discussions can develop even with elementary age children.
We finished off our history for the week talking about the western front, the battles, the deaths, the trenches and life in them. But now that we had seen what a trench actually looked like and “seen” people in the war, it was more real and hopefully the lessons will be more lasting. Not just the lessons of war, but the lessons of peace also.
After Christmas break we’ll move on to the eastern front, the vehicles, the weapons, and there rest. But I’m glad we got to stop at this spot right before Christmas. It seemed appropriate and somehow meant to be.
Merry Christmas and my deepest wishes for peace on earth and goodwill toward men.
(Also… we watched this mini documentary about the Christmas Truce of 1914 as well. Not as much of a tear jerker, but still pretty good.)