Guarding our digital identities

It is 2018 and the age of ‘Big Brother’ is upon us.

When I was a teenager, the Matric year group of 1984 at our school studied George Orwell’s novel of the same name.  Those of us in the lower year groups were treated to references to the story all through the year via artwork, posters, writings, presentations and dramatisations of extracts in school assemblies.  Even though we didn’t study it, the disturbing message of that prophetic novel crept into our classes so we were broadly aware of the storyline and the dark message it contained.  It was the age before the internet became widespread, the school (a well off state sponsored white-only school in a lovely suburb of Cape Town) had a few Apple Mac computers for a few programming minded pupils to use.  None of us had mobile phones.  But this was Apartheid South Africa and we were all conscious that covert Government surveillance happened even if we didn’t necessarily notice it every day.  We were becoming politically aware and some of us were starting to question the injustices of the black / white / coloured divide enforced on our daily lives.  The message of that novel about propaganda manipulation and control via computer technology seemed unreal yet profoundly and frighteningly true – this could happen in the future as we knew that technology was developing faster than laws and ethics could keep up to protect people from exploitation and disaster.

So much has happened since that time as technology has advanced at ever increasing speed.  Mobile computer devices have become ubiquitous in many countries and communities, print news media is fast being superceded by online news exchanges in online news and social media sites but not everyone has the digital skills to interrogate the veracity of what they read or see online.  I’ve written before about the importance of teaching research skills to children, encouraging their natural curiosity while teaching them the principles of probing questioning of facts, interpretation of data and why I think the UK curriculum doesn’t cover this sufficiently well or early enough.

The internet age has meant that a vast amount of information is now available at the click of a button or tap of a finger on a screen, providing a huge library of knowledge, alternative facts or shop of delights.  So many new connections between people in different communities, regions and nations have become much easier to make – so much swifter than penpals communicating via pen, letter and stamp of snail mail.  We can exchange opinions and facts almost instantly with people we will never meet, sharing hobbies, games, interests, pastimes and skills as well as emotional support. So many positive and fun things have happened and continue to happen as a result of these new online technologies and tools.

My children have grown up with computers and mobile phones, though they didn’t get their own mobile phones until secondary school.  21st century schools often set homework which requires pupils to use computers. Social media apps are pervasive and addictive, especially with peer pressure in the mix making personal mobile phones potent tools for bullying and intimidation.  Every parent has the problem of weighing up how early or late to allow their children access to such tools and how to teach their children about safe responsible use of the internet, especially if they are less than sure themselves.

Our digital identities have become commercially valuable to hugely powerful companies who have immense influence about what kind of service they provide as well as the terms and conditions of using those apps and services. Governments and private companies are exploiting these tools for political purposes, using covert surveillance and manipulation of public opinion, this is especially easy to do if people are ignorant of basic good online practice or are too trusting or gullible. Even if we create online accounts on various platforms using pseudonyms to try and protect our identities depending on the context in which we use those online platforms, it is still possible for those controlling the systems we use to discover our identities hidden behind a cover name and to make use of this data and what we share for their own purposes.  Especially disturbing is how this is used in cyber warfare to divide public opinion, fan the flames of distrust and hate between groups, religions, cultures and countries.  There are reports this is done via covert setups such as bot farms which latch on to popular hashtags then twist messages to confuse people; disrupting conversations and debates sometimes with devastating results. The forthcoming EU General Data Protection Rules (GDPR) are compelling EU countries and countries who trade with them to face up to their responsibilities regarding the handling of personal data which they hold about people, this may offer more protection and clarity of our right to privacy though may be difficult to enforce.

Teaching people how to use these modern online technologies safely, responsibly and openly is never more urgent than now in the face of all this frightening online activity. It is hard for those of us in Open Education who embrace and promote the concept of open access, open sharing and open online education to counter the negativity and dangers which can so easily outweight the good aspects of the online world.  We try to practice openness which can be risky depending on the situation, we have discovered that a blended mix of open and closed practice is needed to fit the particular context.  The ideal is to be completely open, the reality is to be as open as sensibly possible and when appropriate to explain why we have chosen a particular mix, to encourage others who are tentatively contemplating the merits and potential pitfalls of open educational practice.  Designing learning activities to teach topics in a subject which make good use of the internet and social media is challenging.  Yet it also offers the opportunity to embed teaching about digital identities, open educational resources and practices.

The internet allows us to participate in a class being taught by someone in another country. We can sit on the periphery of a class as we cannot see or hear all the conversations in the physical classroom unless they are shared via a video link, however we can contribute via social media synchronously or asynchronously, possibly enriching or disrupting that lesson by our virtual presence as we share observations and artefacts via images or links to resources.  We cannot know the extent of the impact of our presence on the students whose class we have been invited to join virtually, it may be tenuous or profound, different for each individual.  The potential for learning isn’t limited to the students, those of us who join these learning activities as guest participants also learn and may be inspired to explore avenues we may never have contemplated before as our own cultural world view is challenged and expanded.  It is intellectually rewarding and fun, though can also feel vaguely intrusive (gate crashing the class), depending on how the guest involvement is mediated by the teacher.

I participated briefly in one such international class by contributing a photograph of an item from an unusual angle, as requested by the teacher, the academic Maha Bali, whose fascinating keynote at the OER17 conference in London last year got many of us reevaluating cultural and gender identities, online privacy, accessibility and context of open educational practices.  The photo activity was only one element of the Twitter Scavenger hunt for the Intercultural Learning Class she had designed for her Cairo based students, which she shared via her blog and Twitter several days in advance when she invited her Twitter connections to contribute if they could.  I liked that in her class design she acknowledged the reluctance of some students to create a social media account, students were not excluded if they didn’t create an account, they paired up with others, so mobile phone use could be a face to face group social activity.  The class activities included creating an alternative job or career for themselves as well as reading specific sources in advance or during the lesson.  They tweeted their responses or shared their favourite quote from these sources, tagging the author and a particular hashtag to engage in online discussions. Both the students and the online guests were invited to share a photo of a weird view of an item and guess what the item might be, encouraging online engagement with strangers from many cultures and several countries in a relatively controlled and friendly way.

Image I shared for #DigitalGuardiansEg

Image I shared for #DigitalGuardiansEg – guesses included “a game of some sort?” (@Ayah_Egypt) and “Art piece of some kind? Wall art?” (@el_venter)

One of the resources I was able to read before heading off to work (I shared my photo just before commuting) was the poem I’m Not Angry at You by Maha Bali which explores the topics of cultural divide, colonial attitudes, power, the imposition of language and culture, as well as misguided assumptions about how others think and feel. My favourite quote from the poem, which I didn’t share on twitter at the time of the class, was:

“I’ll tell you what makes me angry
I’m angry when I tell you my story
And you change it
Because you think you know it better
You don’t
Because you think you can express it better
You can’t
That’s YOU colonizing ME ”

I found myself telling my daughter about the class activity and the poem as I drove her to school.  Later I recalled my favourite Open University course A216 (Art and its histories) which devoted a whole unit of the course to cultural otherness including colonial attitudes to African art and culture. That course had reawoken my dormant interest in the art, designs and scenes of my childhood very vividly (Cape Town Market Square filled with colour, music and fabric stalls, bushman paintings in Lesotho, white washed Cape Dutch art galleries and natural history displays) and how these had been reinterpreted and rewritten by Western views.  My perspective is filtered through the lens of a white South Africa born and raised British person who has lived in the northern hemisphere all her adult life, yet with a deep appreciation for Africa, its histories, art and peoples.

I have shared some of my own creations and historical researches in public online, either via a semi anonymous blog with a pseudonym about a particular hobby or more openly via social media: Twitter, this blog and Facebook with my real name.  I’ve been conscious of limitations and risks regarding digital identity and privacy as well as the inherent need in this modern online age of educating people to engage in responsible and respectful ways in online spaces.  Thank you Maha Bali for inviting the world to engage in your online class activity which explored this topic and for making it accessible to many of us who do not speak your language.  As one guest participant commented “I thought I was playing a guessing game this morning, but instead my very worldview has been shaken! #DigitalGuardiansEg” (@jmgordon, via Twitter, 8 February 2018) [edit: though I believe this was said as a joke, @jmgordon has said she “truly appreciated being reminded that things are not necessarily how they seem to me”].

And in case you were wondering what the image I shared is all about, it touches on some of the topics I have covered in this blog post.  It depicts a joint creation built by my husband and me over a period of several years in our spare time, inspired by our love of music, art and places special to us.  You can read more about it on my husband’s pipe organ website if you are interested.

32 keyless street organ with hand carved and painted facade

32 keyless street organ with hand carved and painted facade, mounted on a Silver cross pram chassis

The contents of this blog post has been created and shared using a Creative Commons ShareAlike Non-commercial licence which means others can remix, tweak and build upon this work non-commercially as long as they credit me and licence their new creations under the identical terms.  If you reuse any part of this blog post including photos or text please use the following attribution to credit me:  CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 by Anna C Page
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Visit to the Somme – part 4

The War diaries of the 4th Infantry Brigade, 2nd Canadians indicated troop movements away from the Somme at the beginning of October 1916.  Corporal Noel Bramwell Hall and his fellow infantry in the 19th Battalion had to take a long curved walk to their destination across fields, farms and through villages so they did not pass too close to the frontline.

They set off on 5th October from Bouzincourt and walked to Warloy-Baillon via Senlis-le-Sec. They had a couple of nights at Warloy to rest.

On 7th October their billet was La Vicogne via Contay, Herissart and Val de Maison.

Their 8th October destination was Bonneville via Val Heureux (Vert-Galand farm).  It seems they had a bit more rest at Bonneville of 3 nights in one place without being fired upon.

Beauval (one of the other Canadian Battalions came through this town)

Beauval (one of the other Canadian Battalions came through this town, not far from Occoches)

On 11th October they left Bonneville and went via Rienvillers, Autheux and Occoches to Remaisnil.

Their 12th October destination was Sibiville and Sericourt which they reached via Bouquemaison, Rebreuve-sur-Canche and Canettemont.

On 13th October they left the Houvin-Houvigneul area (it seems some of the Brigade was there rather than nearby Sibiville) – the march table for their destination listed several villages including Houvlin, Magnicourt-en-Comte, Monchy Breton, Orlencourt, Marquay and Bailleul-aux-Cornailles.

On 14th October they moved to Bruay-la-Buissiere, Haillicourt and Ruitz near to Bethune and the frontline.

16th October was the day the 4th Brigade marched to the Barlin-Hersin area in preparation for the frontline again.

Signs for Lens, Bethune, Lievin and Barlin

Signs for Lens, Bethune, Lievin and Barlin

During the afternoon of 26 October 2016 we roughly followed their route from the Somme to get a sense of the landscape and places they would have seen on their journey.  It was mostly farmland, villages and towns until we approached Bruay-la-Buissiere, though even on the motorways leading to Lieven, Lens and Loos-in-Gohelle where Noel is buried the colour of the autumnal trees lining the route were spectacular.

So although the landscape had become industrial and built up, there was enough nature to retain some beauty.

British line in Artois in the spring of 1916 after the relief of the French army south of Loos.

British line in Artois in the spring of 1916 after the relief of the French army south of Loos.

The British frontline the 2nd Canadians had been sent to relieve was divided into three Brigade sections: Souchez on the right (south), Angrez in the centre and Calonne on the left (north) – near Bully-Grenay (where one Battalion was based in reserve).  The 4th Brigade was assigned to the Calonne section which was being held by the 111th Brigade and relieved them on the 17th October.

The map shows the British front line in Spring that year.

The Lens and Bethune area was a mining region and therefore of great value strategically.  Some of the 4th Brigade was called upon to help with some tunnelling for military purposes while most of the others manned the defences and frontline.

The War Diary intelligence summary sheet for 26th October 1916 shows that the weather was fair, the gas alert was relaxed and the Duke of Devonshire visited the 2nd Canadians that day. It also stated: Casualties O.R. 1 killed, 1 wounded.  O.R. means Ordnance Rating.  Noel.

On the Library and Archives of Canada website I found the index card showing the circumstances of Noel’s death:

“Killed” (Accidentally)

He was instantly killed by the premature explosion of a shell in the gun he was serving, during operations in the vicinity of Calonne.

Cemetary: Cite Calonne Military Cemetery, Near Fosse No. 2 de Lievin, 1 1/2 miles West North West of Lievin, 4 miles South of Vermelles, France.

Circumstances of death Cpl Noel B Hall 26 October 1916

Circumstances of death Cpl Noel B Hall 26 October 1916

Newcastle Daily Journal 10 November 1916 - death notices for Ann Eliza and Noel Bramwell Hall

Newcastle Daily Journal 10 November 1916 – death notices for Ann Eliza and Noel Bramwell Hall

It seems that he died somewhere just south of Grenay as the cemetery where he was originally buried was between Grenay and Lievin and they would not have moved him far.  He was less than 2 months short of his 25th birthday.

Also online I found a very poignant listing in the Newcastle Daily Journal, Friday November 10, 1916 which showed not only Noel’s death notice (under the military deaths – Roll of Honour) but that of his grandmother Ann Eliza Hall who died on 9 November exactly 2 weeks after Noel’s death, at the age of 79.

I can imagine that Ann Eliza was probably already unwell and that the appalling news of her beloved grandson’s death broke her heart.  Only 2 years previously her eldest daughter Marian had died and Noel’s father (her son) was also dead.

In 1925 Noel’s aunt Rosa Beatrice Hall, still living at the Manor House in Shincliffe, received a letter from the Imperial War Graves Commission which explained that Noel’s body had been moved to the Loos British Cemetery.

The tone of the letter is sensitive even though it would have been sent to many families (the type is different for the unique information about individual soldiers but the letter was still signed personally).

In 2008 we found his grave so it wasn’t difficult to find it again in the neatly laid out cemetery.  Once again for our visit to Noel the weather was beautiful, with a clear blue sky, the fog of the Somme area left behind.

We had brought some English roses from our garden to place on Noel’s grave – the lovely yellow scented ‘Summertime’ which climbs around an archway in our garden, the two last buds of the gorgeous scented deep purple ‘Young Lycidas’, some sprays of the prolific red Olympic flame and an unidentified orange coloured hybrid tea rose from our front garden.  Noel has a known grave with his name on it.  So many of the WWI dead have no known grave or were not identified, therefore it seemed fitting to bring him an unidentified rose to acknowledge his many lost comrades.

The Maple trees in the cemetery had lost a lot of their leaves but still looked flaming in the sunshine.  We signed the Visitors Book before we left to return to England.

Our entry in the Visitors Book at Loos British Cemetery

Our entry in the Visitors Book at Loos British Cemetery

It was an immense privilege to be able to retrace some of Noel’s steps on this 2 day trip to France and learn something of what those soldiers experienced in that terrible drawn out fight for territory which wasted so many lives.


War Diaries of 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade October 1916

British line in Artois in the spring of 1916 after the relief of the French army south of Loos. Campaign and Battle Maps, The Long, Long Trail – the British Army in the Great War

Library and Archives Canada – Circumstances of death registers, First World War

See also Visit to the Somme – part 1Visit to the Somme – part 2 and Visit to the Somme – part 3.

Visit to the Somme – part 3

26 October 1916 was the day my Granny’s cousin Noel Bramwell Hall died in WWI.  He did not die at the Somme where he had served in the 19th Battalion of 4th Brigade during the Canadian capture of Courcelette from the Germans.  Instead his Brigade, part of the reserve army, was moved out of the Somme area at the beginning of October and marched north to relieve British forces fighting between Lens and Bethune.  As an infantry unit they walked the distance.

26 October 2016 dawned very foggy in the Somme, common weather for that time of year in the area.  So retracing Noel’s steps in the Somme before the march north meant venturing out in the very low cloud.  We went in search of Sausage Valley.

Becourt Chapel on a foggy morning

Becourt Chapel on a foggy morning

In the War Diary of the 4th Brigade of the 2nd Canadians for 25th September to 4th October the Brigadier-General mentioned Sausage Valley several times.  On the 25th the Brigade was moved back from behind the lines near Albert where they appeared to have been stationed for a few days.  They were moved back to the battlefields to help with operations around Pozieres.  The 19th Battalion were moved to Tara Valley in readiness for being called forward however because of heavy shelling overnight on other Battalions and other movements on the battlefield the 4th Brigade wasn’t called into position and was returned further behind the lines, so 19th moved from Tara Valley to Sausage Valley along with the 18th Battalion early on the 27th September.  The following day they were on the move again:

The 19th Battalion under command of Lieut-Colonel W. R. Turnbull was moved up to GUN PIT ROAD during the night and came under the orders of the G.O.C. 6th Brigade.  Early in the morning of the 28th September, this Battalion was ordered to push forward from GUN PIT ROAD in the direction of a Line from DESTREMONT FARM to the SOUTH PRACTICE TRENCHES and to establish a Line well in front of the PRACTICE TRENCHES.  This operation called for caution and at the same time, a fixed determination to attain the objective, in spite of opposition from the numerous small hostile parties suspected to be firmly holding hidden strong points in the area which the advance had to be made.  The movement was carried out with dash and splendid gallantry and our position advanced over a thousand yards with few casualties.” (War Diary, September 1916)

70th Brigade (23rd British Division) managed to occupy Destremont Farm just south west of Le Sars after heavy fighting over the next 2 days and the War Diary continued:

Under incessant and increasing machine gun fire from the direction of LE SARS and the high ground to the North and West, the leading Platoons of the 19th Battalion pushed forward and took up a new position about 400 yards north of the PRACTICE TRENCHES. A support trench about 150 yards in rear and a reserve trench were also hastily constructed.  Flank protective trenches were also provided.  Lewis Guns adn Bombing posts were quickly prepared and during the day all ranks worked steadily improving the postiion.  By noon the Battalion had completed a continuous front line trench, 4ft deep, and established observation posts and direct telephone communication with Battalion Headquarters.  Much valuable information was sent form these advanced observation stations.  A message was received fromt he G.O.C 2nd Canadian Division extending his congratulations to the Units taking part in this splendid achievement.  This much appreciated communication was promptly transmitted to all Ranks engaged.” (War Diary, September 1916)

Apparently on the morning of 29th September some scouting parties were sent out – one such party from the 19th Battalion discovered 3 Germans in a dug-out and killed them, later that day another group discovered others in a Gun Pit who surrendered and another patrol under Lieut Dunn of 19th Battalion found an unoccupied German trench 500 yards in front of the advanced line which contained their equipment, bombs and ammunition, they immediately set up their own post in the trench of bombers, Lewis gunners and Snipers.  19th Battalion were relieved by 20th Battalion during the night of 30th September/1st October, with the 19th going into support.

Nicholson, G. W. L. 1962. Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War: Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919. Queens Printer and Controller of Stationary, Ottawa, Canada.

Nicholson, G. W. L. 1962. Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War: Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919. Queens Printer and Controller of Stationary, Ottawa, Canada.

Before being relieved by the 9th Brigade of the 3rd Canadians, all Battalions of the 4th Brigade took part in some more trench digging during the night of 2nd October.  The War diary explained:

This order also required the 4th Brigade to dig a “jumping off” trench forward of our position in some sections, and called for the work being completed during the night October 2nd/3rd or before relief.  he men were very much exhausted from want of sleep, heavy shelling and continuous rain.  As these trenches were required for further offensive operations contemplated by the Army, and every man realised the importance of pressing the advantage we had already gained over the enemy, the work was undertaken cheerfully, notwithstanding the exhausted and worn out condition of all ranks.  Every Unit in the Brigade contributed to the working parties and by noon the following day, a further advance had been made in our general line.  By joining some disused portions of enemy trench, and pushing forward a series of posts our Battalions had been able to gain in some places two hundred yards of additional ground.” (War Diary, September 1916)

During this time they also buried some of the dead.

Information about Becourt Chapel

Information about Becourt Chapel

The 4th Brigade was relieved during the night of 3rd/4th October and moved to Sausage Valley and subsequently to Bouzincourt and rest billets.

The work of the Brigade was appreciated by the Army Commander who intimated to the Division in a special message, his pleasure and satisfaction with the work done by all Ranks.” (War Diary, September 1916)

The bottom end of Sausage Valley which is just south of Le Boisselle ends at a village called Becourt.

The large bomb crater Lochnegar is alongside the top end of the valley.  We didn’t visit the crater but instead headed for Becourt.  There we discovered that the Chateau had been severely damaged during the war but that a Red Cross station had been established in the Chapel and in the basement of the Chateau.  This made sense – those of the troops stationed in the valley who were wounded would have been taken for treatment to the Chateau and if they died they were buried in the Cemetery which was established nearby (Norfolk Cemetery, Becordel-Becourt).

Looking at the floor display at Thiepval Museum

Looking at the floor display at Thiepval Museum

We drove to Thiepval Memorial and visited the museum.  There we saw photos of the damage to Albert and Courcelette and read some of the personal accounts of soldiers who had fought in the Somme.  The display of artefacts found in the battlefields in the 100 years since the war was stunning and sobering – it was placed under glass in the floor along with screens of photos and videos with captions, as if ‘finding’ those pieces of evidence at ground level like the farmers and reconstruction workers will have done, rather than seeing them displayed in wall mounted cabinets at eye level as in most museums.  Most were rusted, distorted and encrusted with mud – the horrible reality of trench warfare.  We walked quietly along, pausing frequently to read, examine and reflect on the terrible waste and destruction of lives and property.

We also saw an early aeroplane in the museum which had been used in the first air warfare, however we could not linger long as we needed to attend the daily ceremony at the Thiepval memorial itself.  So we went outside and walked to the Memorial which loomed in the fog in a massive ghostly shape, very evocative of the many lost souls it records on its thick bastions.

first view of Thiepval Memorial in the fog

First view of Thiepval Memorial in the fog

I had a short discussion with the person leading the ceremony who confirmed that he had put my poem reading at the start rather than the end as another group were also taking part and had names to read out.

I had requested to read a poem but had not chosen one of the well known war poems (in Flanders Fields would have been appropriate as it was written by a Canadian and I have sung Liz Lane’s beautiful setting of that poem in The Open University Choir).  Instead the Royal British Legion gave permission for me to read my own poem, written in 1986 on my way home from school.

It was introduced as follows:

We will now hand over to Anna Page who together with her family is commemorating Corporal Noel Bramwell Hall, 2nd Canadians 19th Battalion 4th Brigade. She will read her poem “We were so young”.

It is dedicated to the many young men and women who went off to war, and is about how they might have been sustained by childhood memories in the worst of the conflict when reality was very different from their idealistic expectations. 

We were so young (by Anna Herbert, aged 17)

I hear the laughter in children’s voices,
I remember their plays, I know their choices,
I see their childish summer games,
I remember all their innocent aims
And I think:
We were so young.

Our view of life was young and kind
Hardly a conflict can cross my mind
That was as cruel as those we were yet to know,
Or as frightening as places toward which we go
And I realise:
We were so young.

The Winter has come for those summer joys,
The sun has set on our babyish toys,
We must face the future as we did in those days,
Backed with golden summer memories
Of the days
When We were so young.

The Act of Remembrance followed with the Bidding Prayer:

Let us remember before God and commend to his sure keeping: those who have died for their country in war; those whom we knew, and whose memory we treasure; and this day especially those who gave their lives in the Battle of the Somme.


They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old,
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning
We will remember them.

All:  We will remember them.

Last Post (which was a recording broadcast over the sound system)

Two Minutes Silence


Then three men came up to read the names of all those from their town and surrounding villages who had died in WWI.  It was hard to read those names without choking up especially as the list was long and there were several with the same surnames. I had found the fourth line of my poem difficult though managed to keep going.

Beside the poppy wreaths at the Thiepval Memorial

Beside the poppy wreaths at the Thiepval Memorial

The act of remembrance ended with the Kohima Epitaph – When you go home tell them of us and say: ‘For your tomorrow we gave our today.’

Afterwards we explored the monument and the cemetery beyond it which was filled mostly with unidentified British and French soldiers.  Although I would have liked to have seen the memorial in brilliant sunshine (as depicted in photos) seeing it in the fog gave a very strong sense of a shadowy army of lost men forever honoured in that place. It was an intensely moving experience.

At the entrance to the Visitors Centre and Museum are two large banks of earth covered in grass and remembrance crosses and poppies with messages. We bought a cross with a poppy on it to take to Noel’s grave.

We drove from Thiepval to Grandcourt, Miraumont, past Courcelette then back down the Albert-Bapaume road and across the Ancre river at Aveluy, covering some of the ground where 4th Brigade had spent their last few days in the Somme.  It was still foggy so not worth taking any photographs and there was little time to stop as we had to embark on the last part of our journey – retracing 4th Brigade’s march to Calonne and the visit to Noel’s final resting place.

See also Visit to the Somme – part 1, Visit to the Somme – part 2 and Visit to the Somme – part 4


War diary – Operations of the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade at the Somme, Sept 25th – October 4th 1916, Brigadier-General R. Rennie, MVO. D80, Commanding

Nicholson, G. W. L. 1962. Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War: Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919. Queens Printer and Controller of Stationary, Ottawa, Canada.  Found at

Visit to the Somme – part 2

Courcelette Church

Courcelette Church

While retracing the steps of Cpl Noel B Hall of the 2nd Canadians at WWI we visited the village of Courcelette after spending a bit of time at the memorial to the Canadians on the Albert-Bapaume road.  The village is small – a church and about 30 houses.  19th Battalion didn’t fight in the village however I’m fairly sure they would have passed through it or very close to it later, based on the information from the War diaries of 4th Brigade.

The road layout has remained the same even though the fighting and shelling during WWI destroyed or badly damaged most of the buildings.  The village still looks old as the houses have been rebuilt, often using the same materials and designs.

In the centre of the village is the church and a small green which has become the war memorial for those of the village who died fighting.  There is also a memorial to the Canadians and an information display showing a map and description of what happened.  The small, old trees around the green have hand-made large poppies strung from their branches in places.  It is clearly a place of pilgrimge for many people.

After visiting Courcelette we found our way to the nearby British Cemetery.  I was intrigued to discover that the memorial entrance to the Cemetery was designed by Sir Herbert Baker who also designed St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town where I grew up.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemeteries are all immaculately maintenained with the graves in neat symetrical rows, like a military parade.  It was very sobering reading the number of headstones inscribed with the simple words “A solder of the Great War – known only to God”.  We came across the grave of a Canadian soldier who died on the same day as Noel and was the same age, though at the Somme rather than near Lens.

The descriptions of the Somme battles showed that this peninsular of farmland between Bapaume, Albert, the rivers Ancre and Somme was hotly contested, taken and retaken at various times during the 4 1/2 long weary years of war and that early graves were often pulverised in later battles which meant that many bodies were never found or were unidentified.  Sometimes bodies are still uncovered during farming or building operations, when possible they are identified, they are always reburied with full military honours in one of the military cemetaries.  And the farmers are always ploughing up shrapnel, spent ammunition casings, shovels, cooking utensils and personal belongings.

Next we made our way to the Thiepval Memorial as I needed to find out if they could explain a place name I had come across several times in the War Diary of the 4th Brigade but could not find on a map.  The Brigadier-General had used local place names as well as nicknames for the newly dug trenches in his descriptions of events and I wanted to find Sausage Valley as it seemed to be a place where the troops were sent back to from the front line for a temporary rest.

At the Thiepval Memorial they have an information desk by the main entrance door to the Visitors Centre and this was run when we arrived by a very helpful person (she was English but lives long term in France) who looked it up in a detailed map guide book she had under the desk.  She was able to give me exact co-ordinates for the valley – 1000 metres south of La Boisselle and gave us the electrifying information that there was also a Mash Valley on the other side of the village 600 metres west of La Boisselle.  We had a good laugh about the British sense of humour which must have resulted in those two valleys being given such names by the armies who used them.  She also photocopied a map from her book showing the positions of these valleys.

We asked the Thiepval guide about visiting actual trenches and she told us about Beaumont-Hamel nearby.  So rather than look at the museum at Thiepval that afternoon we made our way into the Ancre river valley.  The river flood pools in the valley inspired JRR Tolkein’s descriptions of the Dead Marshes in The Lord of the Rings as Tolkien fought in the Somme in 1916.  The valley is quite wooded, though maybe 100 years ago many of the trees were destroyed in the war which would have added to the ghostly atmosphere.

Beaumont-Hamel is a rocky hilltop and valley battlefield riddled with trenches which have been preserved under grass.  So many of the 1st Battalion Newfoundlander Soldiers died there on the first day of the Somme (70% of their number) it is treated as one large war grave – a sacred site.  It contains 3 CWGC cemetaries.

At the entrance and the top of the site the area is wooded and there are plenty of trenches, half filled in.  We spotted fungi and a couple of red squirrels, so immediately thought of Ellie, who would have been delighted to see them if she had been with us.

At the edge of the trees is the dramatic Caribou monument on a stone cairn overlooking the ridge and the valley.  There is a trench at the top of the ridge, it has a boardwalk and is usable.  The path leads downhill into the valley to the British frontline trench which still contained some of the metal side wall supports.  Further on we saw the metal stakes used for holding the large coils of barbed wire which would have been stretched along the top of the trenches.

In the valley beyond the Wellington Trench and close to the German frontline (which was just over the other side of the ridge leading down to Y Ravine) is the Y Ravine Cemetery.

We walked up the hill to the German front line trenches and the heavily fortified Y Ravine.  These trenches were roped off as not safe to walk in as there is still plenty of ammunition embedded in the ground.  There was a place to look into the Y Ravine immediately opposite the 51st Highland Division monument.  Beyond this monument was the Hunter’s Cemetery, a circular memorial which used a bomb crater as a grave pit.

It was a short walk to the Hawthorn Ridge Cemetery No. 2 which contained gravestones closely fitted side by side, often with double burials.

We were back under the trees again, maple leaves floating down as we walked along Maple Walk back to the Caribou monument.

As we walked towards the museum building we saw the remains of a Gun carriage, it made me think of Noel serving a gun and the dangers posed to soldiers if they made a mistake or if ammunition was faulty.  There was also a poem by John Oxenham inscribed on a plaque beside a tree inviting those who visited to think about the sacrifice of those soldiers and the responsibility future generations have to uphold peace.

Although Noel had not fought at Beaumont-Hamel, seeing preserved trenches (even though grassed over) brought the realities of the battle into focus.

After we left Beaumont-Hamel we drove down into the Ancre valley again and to Albert, past the Basilica in the centre of the town and on to the hotel.  In the evening we returned to the centre of Albert for a meal and I photographed the Basilica which had been fully restored after suffering terrible damage during the war, the golden statue ‘The Leaning Virgin’ standing once more on top of the tower after being knocked sideways during the early part of the war and later knocked right off near the end of the war.  There was also a statue of a Scottish Highlander near the restaurant which I couldn’t resist photographing if only for its nickname.

It had been a long and fascinating day discovering the Somme and putting Noel’s story into context but there was more to explore the next day including Sausage Valley, to be covered in Part 3.

See also Visit to the Somme – part 1, Visit to the Somme – part 3 and Visit to the Somme – part 4


War diary – Operations of the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade at the Somme, Sept 10th – 17th 1916, Brigadier-General R. Rennie, MVO. D80, Commanding

War diary – Operations of the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade at the Somme, Sept 25th – October 4th 1916, Brigadier-General R. Rennie, MVO. D80, Commanding

Visit to the Somme – part 1

In 2014 I blogged about my Grandmother’s cousin Corporal Noel B Hall who died during 1916 in WWI.  We had visited his grave in June 2008 on our way back from the Waldkirch organ festival and I vowed at the time that for the 100th anniversary of his death we would visit him again.  But first I needed to do more research about him and his military service.

Noel Bramwell Hall, undated postcard

Noel Bramwell Hall, undated postcard

Noel served at the Somme yet was killed and buried north of the Somme battlefields.  There is a vast amount of information available online about WWI and trying to pin down the story of one individual soldier felt at times like seeking a needle in a haystack.  However I did know some basic facts because of the newspaper article I have in the family archives lists his Company, Battalion and Brigade.  This information had enabled me to find his grave information on the CWGC website 8 years ago.  But why was a young man who had been born and grew up in Durham serving with the Canadian army? Why did he die north of the Somme at Calonne (between Bethune and Lens) when it appeared he had spent some weeks at the Somme first?  Why was the undated postcard, showing one of only 2 photos I have of Noel (in civilian clothes), addressed to his grandmother and maiden aunts at an address in Sunderland when they lived in Shincliffe, Durham?  These were all questions which I hoped to answer.

Information from the family archives left in my care by my grandmother and her sister Charlotte Beryl Pearce as well as searches of census and birth records enabled me to discover the following facts about Noel:

He was born on 24 December 1891 in Shincliffe, County Durham to Frederick Jackson Hall and Florence Jane Hall (nee Hudson).  He was apparently their 3rd son, but one of his brothers had died in infancy.  His elder surviving brother was called Frederick Jackson Hall.  Noel was baptised Noel Bramwell Hall on 13 January 1892 in Shincliffe. I think his first name must have been chosen because he was a Christmas baby and his second name possibly because his mother may have been a fan of the Bronte sisters fiction.  On the 1891 census his father’s occupation was listed as Solicitors Clerk and the family lived in Shincliffe Village.

His father did not appear on the 1901 census because at the time he was serving in the Boer War in South Africa.  In the 1901 census nine year old Noel and his mother were living at Sherburn House Station NER, Sherburn, Durham – they were boarders and his mother had ‘living partly on own means’ next to her name.  His elder brother (known as Eric) was listed in the 1901 census as living at 56 Old Elvet in Durham with their grandparents as James Hall ran the Old Elvet private school and 13 year old Eric was a pupil there.  On the 1911 census his mother did not appear, I found out she died in 1910.  I have yet to find out when his father died.

Noel was listed on the 1911 census as living with his Grandmother Ann Eliza Hall and aunts Marion and Rosa Beatrice (James Hall had died in 1908) at the Manor House in Shincliffe Village.  His occupation at age 19 was Music shop assistant, presumably in Durham.  The Hall family was well known for being very musical, they had organised a number of concerts in the city when James ran the school and I have a copy of a programme from one of these concerts in the 1890s showing that Noel’s father had sung solos.

On 18 April 1912 aged 20 Noel emigrated to Montreal, Canada on board a ship called Sicilian (the Allan Line).  He lived in Toronto, the newspaper article even included his address as 49 Bellefair Avenue.  His occupation on the ship record was listed as ‘farming’.

The second Canadian infantry Division was formed in 1914. The 19th Battalion of the 4th Brigade was raised at Exhibition Park in Toronto, Ontario on 6 November 1914.  I have found Noel’s enlisting papers online (attestation paper) – the medical examination part is dated 7 November 1914 and the attestation part is dated 12 November 1914.  So Noel probably attended the gathering at Exhibition Park.  The paper includes his aunt Rosa Beatrice Hall as his next of kin.  It also lists his occupation as ‘Tutor’.  He was not married and had not served in the military before (this contradicts the newspaper article which said he had previously served with the Grenadier Guards – it is just possible that the reporter was told that his brother or uncle was serving with them but incorrectly claimed this for Noel instead – I have not yet investigated his brother and uncle’s war records).  The attestation paper also gives details of his appearance – he was 5ft 6 1/2 inches tall, his chest girth when expanded was 33 1/2 inches with a range of expansion of 2 inches, his eyes grey and his complexion and hair fair.  He had a large mole on the back of his right shoulder.  His religious denomination was indicated as Church of England.

Noel Hall Toronto article, 1915

Noel Hall Toronto article, 1915

On 13 May 2015 the 4th Brigade sailed from Canada on The Tunisian and arrived at the West Sandling Camp, Shorncliffe in Kent (England) on the 23 May.  The Toronto newspaper article describes this arrival through Noel’s eyes:

“We got into Devonport at nine o’clock Saturday morning, the 22nd, but had to wait in the harbour til two boatloads of troops from Ireland disembarked to go on to the Dardenelles.  So we waited til Sunday morning.  We got off at 10 o’clock and got on a Great Western train for Sandling, Kent, though we did not know then where we were going.  We went through the suburbs of London and were given a great reception all along the line where holiday-makers were waiting for their excursion trains, and I noticed that there were few few young men among the crowds, in fact it was very noticeable.  We saw the soldiers drill Sunday just as if it was a week-day, but they were volunteers from factories who were working all the week.  We had to stop twice to let the Red Cross trains pass through to London and we could see the poor fellows lying on the stretchers all bandaged up, and it gave one the feeling that we were near to the front.  We noticed all over the country Red Cross flags flying on churches and factories that had been made into hospitals.  Where we are in camp we are just twelve hours run from the trenches, in fact some of the men who left for the front were back in forty-eight hours.  That is going a quick service, don’t you think?”

Arriving in Dunkerque

Arriving in Dunkerque at breakfast time

The 4th Brigade of the 2nd Canadians trained at West Standling Camp until 14 September 1915 when it was transported to the front line in France to serve as a Reserve army.  It seems that their first few months of service was behind the lines, possibly relieving others for short periods.

I concentrated my research on the last 2 months of Noel’s life as going through all the War Diaries for the 4th Brigade would have taken a lot more time.  This helped me piece together enough information to know that he fought at the Somme and did trench digging there but somehow succeeded in surviving the Somme carnage only to die less than a month later further north. So our trip needed to include both the Somme and Lens areas and I worked out key places to visit in the two days.

First view of the Canadian Memorial at Courcelette

First view of the Canadian Memorial at Courcelette

We set off very early on Tuesday 25th October and got the 6am ferry to Dunkerque from Calais.  Breakfast on the ferry meant that we didn’t need to stop along the way to eat as we drove through northern France via Lens, Arras and Bapaume – all occupied by the Germans during that period of 1916.

Our first stop was on the Albert-Bapaume road midway between Courcelette and Martinpuich to see the memorial to the famous advance by the 2nd Canadians on 15th/16th September 1916.

My research showed that the 3 Battalions of 4th Brigade involved (18th, 20th and 21st) had the ground prepared for them by the 19th Battalion (Noel and his fellow soldiers) as they did some major ‘jumping-off’ trench digging work according to the War Diary of the 4th Brigade:

Crossing the road to the Canadian Memorial at Courcelette

Crossing the road to the Canadian Memorial at Courcelette

In preparation for the attack, a series of jumping-off trenches in advance of our Front Line, had to be dug.  This work was carried out successfully by the 19th battalion, Major Gordon F Morrison, Commanding, in the absence of Lt-Colonel W R Turnbull, wounded in a previous engagement.  The enemy shelling during the few days this work was going on, was very severe, and unfortunately many casualties resulted. 

The great value of these forward Trenches, which were dug by the men of the 19th Battalion, was however, clearly shown by subsequent events and too much credit cannot be given to those carrying out of the work, which was done under an irritating and destructive fire during several days and nights.

Memorial stone inscription

Memorial stone inscription

Our Artillery kept up a steady and very effective fire day and night on the 12th, 13th and 14th September. This fire covered all enemy trenches which came within the zone of the attack, and the effect was clearly revealed in the shattered nerves of many of the prisoners who came in on the day of our advance.” (War diary, Sept 1916)

The 19th waited behind the lines to be pulled in to help with the battle if they were needed.

The four waves were to form up in the jumping-0ff trenches, previously prepared, and to be in positions in ample time to give all ranks a good rest before the hour fixed for the assault.  The fourth Company of each Battalion forming the fifth wave, formed up in trenches to rear.

Stone Maple leaf wreath

Stone Maple leaf wreath

In addition, Platoons from the 19th Battalion, followed closely upon the First wave of the three attacking Battalions as an intermediate wave, and the instructions given to this wave were, that it should “mop up” or deal with any enemy left, who might possibly fire into the backs of those troops who had passed on.  The intermediate wave was also instructed to consolidate the First Line German Trench and take charge of all Prisoners.” (War diary, Sept 1916)

However during the night most of the 19th Battalion were relieved by other Battalions so it appears that Noel and his colleagues didn’t have to do much of the “mopping up” work, though a platoon of bombers from the 19th did stay to help.

Courcelette from the Canadian Memorial

Courcelette from the Canadian Memorial

The first use of tanks in war took place in this battle:

At 6.30 am the “TANKS” supporting the advance of the 4th Brigade went forward in accordance with instructions and assisted in the taking of some enemy positions. … The “TANKS” used for the first time, proved their value.  Prisoners stated that, in their opinion, it was not war but “Butchery”.  One “TANK” is reported to have got astride an enemy trench and to have enfiladed it both ways.  A machine gun officer captured in the SUGAR FACTORY, declared that he directed fire at them, but without any effect, and certainly the advance of this new offensive weapon had much to do with the success of the operation.” (War diary, Sept 1916)

Rosie at the Canadian Memorial

Rosie at the Canadian Memorial

The Canadians advanced further than was anticipated in appalling conditions and both the Sugar refinery on the Albert-Bapaume road and Courcelette were recaptured from the Germans, though many soldiers lost their lives as a result.

The Canadian Memorial at Courcelette to those long dead soldiers is beautiful.  It is set in the heart of a wide open field adjoining the road and is designed to be a simple, solid and lasting tribute to all those men who fought in such difficult and nightmarish circumstances.

Autumn trees at the Canadian Memorial Courcelette

Autumn trees at the Canadian Memorial Courcelette

The central memorial is surrounded by rings of Canadian Maple trees, visiting when we did was perfect for observing the different colours of the leaves as they were falling from the trees – there was a great carpet of them all over the mossy grass.  On a bright sunny day the effect would have been stunning, on the grey cloudy day the cobwebs in the grass were covered in moisture and the effect was peaceful and contemplative.  Rosie sat in a corner seat and said she could have sat there all day just watching the leaves fall.

Maple leaves and cobwebs

Maple leaves and cobwebs

View of Courcelette from the Canadian memorial

View of Courcelette from the Canadian memorial

At each memorial and cemetery is a Visitors book in a specially designed stone cupboard with a metal door.  I wrote a different message in each one we visited.

Our entry in the visitors book at Courcelette

Our entry in the visitors book at Courcelette

Anna beside the Canadian memorial stone

Anna beside the Canadian memorial stone

Canadian Memorial at Courcelette

Canadian Memorial at Courcelette

The next place in our trip was to the village of Courcelette, however that will be in Part 2.

See also Visit to the Somme – part 2, Visit to the Somme – part 3 and Visit to the Somme – part 4.


War diary – Operations of the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade at the Somme, Sept 10th – 17th 1916, Brigadier-General R. Rennie, MVO. D80, Commanding




Testing children

I grew up with a school system (not in the UK) in which testing from early on was a normal part of the school day however none of it was to measure the school or the teachers as far as we knew – it was all done as part of the overall pedagogy – the teachers used short tests to gauge how much we had grasped concepts, facts or ideas. We had comprehension tests in English lessons, short maths tests in maths lessons (including some speed tests), times tables (which we recited in class together regularly – some rote learning was helpful for being able to do sums faster) and spelling tests (we took the list of words home to practice and did the test the next day).

We learned from an early age to cope with a small amount of ‘test’ stress in class on an almost daily basis though certainly the first 2 years at school largely concentrated on learning by playing (among all the toys and educational games we used I remember a much loved dolls house in the classroom on my first year and another dolls house in my second year classroom). From about my fourth year at school we had mid and end of year examinations in several subjects – they were short at that age, as we got older they got longer. We had to pass the exams to pass the year and occasionally some children were kept back to repeat the year (this was South African state education during apartheid).

By secondary school we were well versed in testing and examinations. I cannot say we loved it – we did not – though sometimes testing was done in games which were fun, however because they were well designed, properly thought out for the level of material we were covering it did not feel to a child of average intelligence that they were out to trip us up or worse being used to measure our teachers and potentially penalize our school (maybe they were used in this way but we were not aware of it) – teachers encouraged us to work hard and revise for examinations – we accepted this as normal.  Teaching to the test was not an issue as testing was just one aspect of many ways our teachers were assessing our understanding (class discussions, taking it in turns to read passages aloud, group activities and writing summaries of topics were some of the other ways they were quietly observing and assessing us in a normal school day and our school reports reflected their observations as well as test scores).  We had an enormous variety of different types of learning activities including film shows, overhead projector pictures and diagrams, art and music classes, games and physical education, so the more mundane activities were interspersed with exciting ones.  We learned how to interrogate the available information, discuss it and think about implications.  Our teachers were treated as professionals who had been trained to teach children according to the best methods of the time and their professionalism was recognised and accepted by the government.

I cannot say how those tests and examinations were received by children with dyslexia or visual impairment.  We did not have any blind children in our school as all blind, deaf, severely physically or cognitively disabled children were sent to special schools – they were not integrated into mainstream schools.  I do recall a friend in our class who was disabled with a heart problem (a hole in her heart), her strength was not sufficient for her to participate in sports however she had a bright mind and kept up with classwork as far as I could tell.  There probably were some dyslexic children in the school and I do not know what, if anything, was done to help them, it wasn’t something I was particularly aware of then.  Some people had more trouble with spelling or writing than I did – possibly they were dyslexic however most of the teachers I experienced treated struggling children kindly and did not make an example of them (there were exceptions – and they were invariably teachers I disliked for their meanness).

I realise that I was privileged in the height of the apartheid era – this was state education for white children whereas our black neighbours had a narrower curriculum, less funding for their schools (therefore less variety and fewer resources) and some teachers who may not have had the best training, though I’m sure their dedication to their pupils would have been just as strong as the care most of my teachers gave us.  Those children will have encountered regular testing too and despite all the additional difficulties they faced they worked hard to achieve something at school, though there was a distinct difference between pass rates at white and black schools at that time.

The current anguish about SATS tests in primary schools in the UK is a sad indictment of a series of Governments who have sought to interfere with the professional judgement of the teaching profession, for ideological rather than sound pedagogical reasons.  Imposing unexpectedly harder tests on children who are not accustomed to that style of teaching and learning is cruel and wrong.  Poorly constructed tests such as the current SATS and SPaG are not properly integrated into the curriculum and ignore the professional judgement of teachers who know their children best.  The results of SATS should not be taken in isolation of the rounded picture of each child which the teachers have from observation and daily teaching. But unfortunately they’re used to judge teachers and schools and are not a fair indication of children’s learning.  The SATS which my younger daughter did at the end of Year 6 were not used by her secondary school when she started Year 7 – they immediately tested the children again themselves.  Their sole purpose seems to be for Government league tables.

Narrowing the secondary curriculum to focus only on STEM subjects to the detriment of Art, Music, Drama and vocational subjects which are known to help the understanding of Science, Maths and Technology subjects is appallingly short-sighted (unless it is a deliberate ploy to produce a generation of children who cannot think for themselves and do not appreciate culture) – my younger daughter is experiencing this narrowed curriculum in secondary school, comparing her Year 7 school subject choices and timetable with those enjoyed by her elder sister 8 years ago is sobering.  We are doing our best to give her as much music and art in her extramural activities as possible, but not every parent has the means to afford music or art or drama or dancing or gym lessons or cultural outings, so reducing these in school time is a travesty.

Tests and examinations done properly by professionals who understand how children learn have a place in the overall mix of assessment that can be used to measure learning.  Done badly, in a poor attempt to ‘improve standards’, punitive testing which relies on learning and remembering facts without necessarily understanding them will cause long term lasting damage to many children, discouraging them and destroying their enjoyment of learning, reading and writing.  It will be very difficult, time consuming and expensive to repair the damage.


Libraries and homework in the internet age

My 12 year old daughter in Year 7 (first year at secondary school in the UK) was given some history homework.  She was asked to create a fictional Facebook profile for Martin Luther.  Not Martin Luther King, the human rights activist.  Martin Luther, the great religious reformer.  The school has an online homework management system which the children login to collect their homework instructions or any updates.  Apparently the teacher had said the template for the Facebook page would be on the system but when my daughter logged in she could not find it.  It is not the first time a teacher at the school has asked her to create a fictional Facebook profile for a character (the previous occasion was for English).  On that occasion I showed her my Facebook profile so she could see what sort of information was included and she drew out a profile on paper using pen and pencil.  She does not have a Facebook profile of her own yet.

My approach on this occasion was to take my daughter to our local library to research Martin Luther.  Yes, I know, the vast majority of children of her age these days would go straight to the internet (probably using Google), do a search for ‘Martin Luther’, find an overwhelming amount of information on a variety of different websites, some of which would be confusing or wrong, would pull out some ‘facts’, create a profile (copying their own profile layout even though officially they should not have Facebook until they are 13 according to Facebook rules) and job would be done.  But what would they learn from this?  Anything about Martin Luther and his time apart from basic facts?  Anything about the provenance of the sources of information (an important concept in history research)?  Anything about how to reference material properly?  Anything about how not to plagiarize someone else’s work?  What about how to search to get the right sort of information needed quickly and effectively? I do not know the purpose of this piece of homework because the information about it is not on the online homework system and she didn’t write anything down in class.  On the face of it this piece of homework panders to the notion of making the topic ‘relevant or fun for modern children’ by using the concept of a powerful online social tool they probably know about (and might be using even if under age).  Maybe I’m being needlessly old fashioned about using a popular social media tool as a route into understanding historical characters.  I will explain my reservations.

Online research to create something like a Facebook profile of a historical character (showing a couple of status updates) risks encouraging surface learning rather than delving into what caused certain events to happen or a character to behave in a certain way, unless it is followed up with other useful activities which explore the topic in more depth in subsequent lessons.  Most children faced with this assignment would recoil at the sight of Wikipedia which can be densely technical though probably mostly accurate (depending on the subject and who had contributed to it online), they would also find other sites with the essential information about Martin Luther (including his 95 theses posted on the Cathedral door in 1517, his education, place of birth, jobs and quotes).  They might even find something about him which makes them pause and think was he really a reformer when some of his views seem to jar with modern sensibilities (for example the place of women in society).  Some children of this age encountering such a vast array of information about him would be able to assimilate this into a Facebook profile which gets to the heart of the character (and would be interesting for a teacher to mark).  Some children, like my daughter, would ask a parent for advice or help first, with varying degrees of success (some parents may know little about the topic or not know where to start).  Other children would do it as a fast as possible without much investigation.  Or they might ignore the homework completely.  Many children will not have access to the internet at home or will have to share a family computer with siblings, some will have no books at home at all or may not have easy access to a library where they can look in books or search the internet on library computers.  Homework at the best of times can be problematic for some children and making most homework rely upon the internet access increases the amount of time children spend in front of a screen and could make them regard books as antiquated sources of information not worthy of their attention.  This means they miss out on the richness of learning how to interrogate paper based information, a useful skill even in the internet age.

By its very nature creating a Facebook profile as a tool for gathering information about a person and understanding their motivations is not going to encourage a child to reference their sources.  There is no place for this on Facebook so why would this even be a passing thought for a child unless the teacher specifically asks them to provide a list of sources they used as part of the activity.  For historical and scientific research purposes knowing how to record a reference is a useful skill especially if you are going to write about and publish your research.  I was taught this skill at primary school in dedicated library lessons.  Our school (in white apartheid South Africa) was fortunate enough to have an excellent library full of books.  We had good teachers.  We were taught the Dewey decimal system, how to search a catalogue and how to do research to write a paragraph or an essay pulling information from at least 3 difference sources.  We were taught how to write a list of references using the Harvard style and how to use the index of a book to find information fast within that book.  We were also taught how to precis a paragraph to make it shorter yet still containing the essential information without changing the meaning, a useful editing skill. In addition we practiced rewriting a paragraph from a book so it contained the original facts or meanings but without directly copying it word for word, we could only quote short extracts not whole paragraphs unless we referenced the source and explained what we thought about it, to show that we had learned something when thinking about and investigating the subject.

In secondary school we honed these skills further as our writing became more sophisticated, it was not easy and the most annoying part was writing everything out by hand and having to rewrite it when we wanted to change the order of sentences or paragraphs.  However writing by hand did help to embed information in our minds and seemed to help some of us organise our thoughts – planning an essay became essential to save rewriting too many times.  So we learned how to gather all the information first, highlight the links between them and discover a narrative.  We learned how to weigh up conflicting evidence about something and make a decision about what to include in a report, essay or project.  We discovered new concepts and ideas. This learning was mediated and enhanced by our teachers who taught us to question, debate and discuss what we researched, they often provided curated resources or a set of instructions and a series of questions we needed to answer to get us started.

Learning this way took time, partly in class, partly at home, in school or a public library.  We also had subject textbooks which we were usually able to take home from school if there were sufficient copies,  this made it possible for parents to see what their children would be learning about that term.  It did mean that it was easy to refer only to the textbook for source material but on many occasions our teachers would encourage us to find other sources to interrogate the ‘facts’ in the textbooks to give us a broader view.  For history in particular this encouragement to question might be one of the many reasons the apartheid regime eventually fell apart as more and more of us in ‘white’ privileged schools questioned the validity and morality of giving us a good education while our black peers in segregated schools were given a separate much narrower syllabus with limited learning resources and were protesting for equality (the 1976 Soweto uprising being the most well known event).  For example my practice examination essay on the African National Congress in preparation for my Matric was a personal turning point because my history teacher gave it an outstanding mark and asked me to “please not write like that in the examination” as the school would be investigated for teaching us to question the official apartheid government story about the ANC (he said it with some pride – he was clearly pleased with me).  It was a sobering realization of the stark divisions in that country where equal opportunities for a good education did not exist because of a terrible ideology.

Homework for the twenty first century child is just as much of a bugbear as it was in previous centuries though some of the tools and resources are different.  My daughter has a laptop, she can type out her homework, though she also hand writes or draws homework, depending on what is set.  She could potentially copy and paste anything from the internet and pass it off as her own unless her teacher runs anti plagiarism software to check the source of her work (if electronic) or we her parents check when she finishes her homework.  She can skim topics to find facts using online search tools and find/highlight tools on the browser.  She can find photos and other images to easily paste into her homework (she has never been told to paste in the source URL or copyright information, she knows nothing about Intellectual Property rights or licences such as Creative Commons which allow copying with attribution, except what I have started to explain).   So the laptop and the internet provides her with powerful tools to get her homework done quickly but she is often overwhelmed by too many choices, dense unmediated information and sometimes a hazy recollection of exactly what the teacher explained of how to go about finding what she needs to complete the homework properly – not paying attention in class is common to all generations!

So we went to the library.  We asked a professional* librarian, who used a computer to search the catalogue (not the card index catalogue of my childhood libraries) but only came up with books about Martin Luther King.  However the librarians were very helpful, they were able to point us to several books (in the children’s section of the library) which contained the essential information plus explanations.  One book, Volume 11 of the Children’s Britannica, had a section (and an image) on Martin Luther explained in clear language understandable to children.  The librarian very helpfully gave my daughter a pencil and paper to copy out essential facts, however we did end up photocopying the pages (20 pence a copy) to bring home when she had done some writing and had become fed up with the paper sliding about on the table (we should have brought her laptop or a pad of paper).  I showed her how to use an index in the other books to find out if Martin Luther was included and whether the information was sufficient to make it worth taking a book out of the library to use at home.  While she was writing some facts from the encyclopedia (which could not be borrowed) I followed up some of the sources in one of the books and talked them through with her when she stopped writing.  One piece of information helped with questioning the extent of the ‘reformer’ reputation and I could see her considering this carefully.  It was a pleasure to bounce ideas off each other and to see the spark of comprehension in her face as we discussed what she was discovering in the books.

Yes, we could have used these investigation techniques on the internet.  However, with a local library (saved once by a huge public campaign in the face of drastic public funding cuts while many others are being closed) containing real books, the opportunity to teach her how to do paper-based research and the chance to get away from a screen, it was good to help her with this piece of homework using a more traditional method.

Maybe we will use the internet to find out if there are any good documentaries about Martin Luther she could watch.  But maybe this is something they will do at school – I don’t know how long the class will be spending on this topic, so we don’t know how much she needs to research.

She could probably compile a short essay on the information she gathers about Martin Luther in addition to the set homework of creating a fictional Facebook profile for a man whose only social media tool was a large notice posted on the door of a Cathedral (a very busy public place in his time). Maybe that is what the teacher will say about this activity in class when they hand their in homework for marking.  I hope she does learn more on this topic in school than the basic information she gathered today for a Facebook profile creation activity and this was just the start of a good exploration of a fascinating period of history.  I also hope she is taught some good research techniques at school though I will do my best to pass on the research skills and knowledge I have not forgotten because it was taught well all those years ago.

*I have been told the librarians on duty may have been Library Assistants

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