Politics 4 November 2012 A sense of history A new poll reminds us that without knowing what we were, we'll never know who we are. Sign up for our weekly email * Print HTML Britain thinks of itself as an old country, in which history and tradition matter. That is a sensibility shared across very different political perspectives, ranging from Eurosceptic invocations of a thousand years of history to Occupy celebrating the 365th anniversary of the Putney debates and British traditions of democratic equality stretching back to the Levellers. David Cameron's recent call to ensure "an enduring cultural and educational legacy" by making young people central to the commemoration of the Great War will strike a chord with most people. Fully 85 per cent of people say that school children today do not know enough British history, and that the centenary should be seized as an important opportunity for them to learn more in a new YouGov poll for British Future, which explores how much people know about the history of the Great War. What the poll also shows is that expressions of pride in British history can often be combined with a pretty shaky grasp of the details. Thinking that history is very important does certainly not seem to entail knowing all that much of it. The findings are not, by any means, all bad news. The new poll shows that most people can at least identify 1914 and 1918 as the years that the war began and ended, with 65 per cent able to identify 1914, falling to 56 per cent who can get the year the war ended. That does leave a third of people who don't know when the war began, making guesses ranging from 1800 to 1950, with 1960 being the latest date given for the year of the Armistice. Only a minority of those under 24 could give either the 1914 or 1918 dates, while over 60s did better. At least most people know that there was a Great War, and when it was, but go beyond that and everything else about that war seems to get quite a bit sketchier for a majority of the population. Forty-four per cent of people could identify Passchendaele as a world war one battle, which seems a fairly reasonable score when the battle in the mud of Flanders does not, though over half a million were killed on the British and German sides combined, have quite the same level of infamy as the Somme. Almost a third of those under 24 did choose Waterloo, Bannockburn or Bosworth Field, where Richard III was killed, as first world war battles. Communities minister Sayeeda Warsi wrote recently in the Sun that "our boys on the front line weren't just Tommies; they were Tariqs and Tajinders as well - one million Indian soldiers fighting for our country". But most people don't know about the Commonwealth troops fought in the war: 44 per cent are aware that Indian soldiers fought for Britain, with a similar proportion knowing that Canadian soldiers took part. There is not much more awareness of the role of Australian troops either, as 47 per cent of Britons know that Australian soliders took part in the war, though that history continues to have a powerful influence on Australian national identity, with the increased prominence of Anzac Day down under forming a crucial part of modern Australian citizenship and nation-building. Only half as many again (22 per cent) knew about the role of African troops from Kenya. Interestingly, breaking the pattern of other questions on dates or battles, 16 and 17-year olds and those under 24 were just as likely to know about soldiers from Australia and Canada, India and Kenya as those over 60, suggesting that this is an aspect of the war that has perhaps become more prominent in the last couple of decades. Two-thirds of people don't feel able to hazard a guess about the scale of British and Commonwealth military casualties. Six per cent of people, and one in ten of those under 24, suspect under 10,000 British and Commonwealth soliders were killed, with under a quarter confident enough to make any sort of sensible estimate in the hundreds of thousands or over a million. The combined number of British and Commonwealth military deaths is just over 1.1 million, according to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. If people have a shaky grasp of what happened, there is also an appetite to know more about it. Family history might be one starting point for many. 14 per cent of people say that their relatives fought in world war one and that they know what they did. Another 33 per cent of people think that they did have relatives who fought in world war one, but that they don't know the details of what they did, while 37 per cent aren't sure whether their relatives were involved or not. (Seventeen per cent say that they know their relatives did not fight in the war). There is a big opportunity here, perhaps for the BBC and the government to collaborate, to open up the "who do you think you are" opportunities to make it easier for people to fill in the gaps in their own family histories, and also to share that information with others. Michael Merrick, who teaches at a Catholic school in Cumbria, told me that schools should also seek to seize the opportunity of the centenary to improve historical knowledge and understanding of how the events of the last century have shaped the society we became, but warned that there are "significant obstacles to overcome" to make this happen. "During the first years at secondary school, too many students will receive just one hour a week of History, one hour in which to deliver an island story spanning thousands of years. One could hardly be surprised if a teacher is thereby reluctant to devote time to exploring local histories at what seems like the expense, on such a limited timetable, of a wider overview. Neither, it should be added, is there always the guarantee that the teacher will be a subject specialist, whilst the current fashion for emphasising the forensic analysis of sources over narrative comprehension further weakens the civic-oriented impulse, turning History into a skill to be learned rather than a story to be told." British Future and the Citizenship Foundation plan to work together during the next year, looking at how schools think the centenary can best be used to improve historical understanding in a way that engages the next generation. But these are not just questions for schools to address. They are also about public understanding of the formative moments which have made us the society that we have become. The centenary of the war should offer an opportunity for every argument about it to be aired and contested, to thrash out the legacies which it has had for Britain today. Why did the war happen and how could the slaughter have been averted? How did it change Britain's relationships with Europe, Empire and Commonwealth? What were the most profound domestic social changes wrought by a war which finally ended the argument about restricting the franchise, and changed the social role of women dramatically? It is hard to see how we can try to answer those questions, or have those arguments if we have only the shakiest grasp on what happened. In 2014, people will want to commemorate the war, and remember those who lost their lives in it. We have two years to think about how we are going to learn what we want to remember. Sunder Katwala is director British Future › Where next for the living wage? Douglas Haig visits a poppy factory in 1926 (Photograph: Getty Images) Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society. 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