Tuesday 6 November 2018

The Men Behind The Glass Sheena Wilkinson

I’m writing this on 4 November 2018 at my home thirty miles from the Irish border. A border I cross at least weekly, a border whose future I worry about daily thanks to Brexit.

The British border in Ireland during the Troubles

On the radio today I have heard –

Tributes to Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action 100 years ago today, including the playing of a German bugle he found on a dead German soldier. This was moving. 

The president of the United States declare that barbed wire ‘used properly’ can be beautiful. This was horrifying. And disgusting. 

Wilfred Owen
A few weeks ago I was involved in a creative writing project in a local school, helping sixth formers to respond creatively to the  school’s World War One archive. The initiative was part of a wider school remembrance project called The Men Behind The Glass. https://menbehindtheglass.co.uk.

Campbell College is a boys’ school in east Belfast -- C S Lewis was a pupil -- and between 1914-1918 many of its alumni served as soldiers, medics, and chaplains. This was, of course, typical of schools of the period, all over Europe.  In my previous career as a teacher I explored the wartime experiences of my own school, Methodist College as inspiration for the story ‘Each Slow Dusk’ in The Great War (Walker Books, 2014) and the novel Name Upon Name(Little Island, 2015). (I wrote about it for my first ever HG post -- http://the-history-girls.blogspot.com/search?q=sheena+wilkinson.)  So when I was asked to work with pupils  at Campbell, along with two neighbouring girls’ schools, Strathearn and Bloomfield Collegiate, I was delighted – this was so very much my kind of project. 

Campbell College
Photos of the 127 men who died in the conflict are displayed around the walls in the school’s central hall – hence ‘the men behind the glass’. Our work was designed to take their stories off the walls and into the hearts and minds and imaginations of the sixth formers who honoured their memories with their responses. I shared with the group my own experience of using an archive to inspire creative work, and we discussed the issues involved. They had biographies of some of the men, which they used as inspiration for their own work – mostly imagined letters home from the western front.

My story in this anthology was inspired
by research in another school archive
The highlight of the project was hearing the students read their work in that hall, surrounded by the portraits of young men often barely older than they. I didn’t understand every word of the finished pieces – my A Level German studies are thirty years behind me now, but that didn’t matter. 

Oh yes. Did I not say? The pieces were in German. It was a German A Level class, and the stories were shared online with a partner school in Germany who will be writing their own wartime stories in English.  Hearing these letters read in German was extraordinarily moving: not only had the students imagined themselves into the minds of young Irish soldiers from a century ago, but, by voicing the sentiments in German, they were also echoing the words of the thousands of German soldiers who would have written home from the same fronts. In that way, it was the most truly European project I have been involved with. Physically the students may not have left the school; imaginatively and emotionally they travelled beyond borders, with or without barbed wire. 

When I heard that German bugle played today, in memory of Wilfred Owen, I detected the same notes of hope. I just hope they can be heard above the clamour of more raucous voices.


Helen Nicholl said...

Lovely piece, Sheena. Thank you.

Sheena Wilkinson said...

Thanks, Helen. I should also add that the project was made possible by the wonderful Young At Art.

Unknown said...

Very interesting article Sheena. Great project to be involved in and fun for you I'm sure !