“We’re ‘ere because …” Why was Tommy Atkins stuck in a trench in 1914?

This enquiry deals with the causes of the First World War starting with the experiences of an officer and a private soldier in the very first trenches on the River Aisne in September 1914.

Students investigate both the longer and short term causes of the First World War. The overall learning objective is to develop understanding of the complexity of causation. It is counter- intuitive but true to say that that students are perhaps in a better position to answer the enquiry question than the people who were caught up in the events of World War   This is a central learning objective of the enquiry and forms the basis of the final activity where the teacher takes on the role of a British ‘Tommy Atkins’ and asks the class to help him grasp the range of reasons why he found himself in a trench in 1914.

Stage 1

'We're 'ere because...?'

This stage begins by setting the scene, showing the Aisne valley and its location in northern France today.

The content in this stage is designed to establish the shape of the enquiry: the students will use hindsight and history to make sense of WHY the soldiers were there and WHY the fighting took the form it did. They will study events in the 1890s and 1900s, events just before the war, and the first weeks of the war.

Lt Paterson's Account

An extract from an informal record of events at Aisne, 16 September 1914, written by Lt Charles James Paterson of the South Wales Borderers, 1st battalion.

'We are here because...' main powerpoint presentation

Presentation of 25 slides featuring a variety of resources to help students and teachers answer the question 'So why was “Tommy Atkins” stuck in a trench 
here in the Aisne Valley in September 1914?'

Word bank to describe mood and tone of soldiers accounts

A worksheet of twenty three words to help students identify how the soldiers are feeling about the war, from their written accounts.

Stage 2

What were the longer term causes of the First World War?

This stage looks at the 1890s and 1900s and how Europe’s ‘Great Powers’ tried to look after their own interests. Students will identify these interests and will do their own international diplomacy to see if they choose to do what the leaders of the time did.

Map of Europe 1895 and outline of decisions by the Great Powers

This resource includes a page of text outlining the different political positions of Great Britain, France, Russia, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire's in 1895, one page per country. A map of Europe c.1895 is also included.

Stage 3

What were the short term causes of the First World War?

This stage shows how the short term causes of the First World War helped put Tommy Atkins in a trench.  The main activity in the stage explores the six or seven weeks before the outbreak of war. Once again students will make decisions like people involved at the time.

Worksheet outlining details of 9 contextual decisions made by the Great Powers

This worksheet asks students to take decisions as if they were a key leader of each of the countries involved in the War. There are nine different contextual positions outlined with accompanying questions.

Nine decisions that led to World War

This powerpoint presentation consists of 3 slides , featuring a map of Europe, a chronology of nine decisions that led to the World War and photographs of some of the key decision makers.

Map of Ottoman Empire in the Balkans, pre 1912


A map of Europe 1912 showing the decline of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans.  An optional resource, which allows teachers to include the role the decline of the Ottoman Empire played in the build up to the First World War.  It can be used to show how the Balkans became even less stable between 1878 and 1914 and can be supported using the animated PowerPoint.

Stage 4

But why trenches?

Slide 21 shows German troops marching into Belgium. But this war was to be very different. It started as seen here: a war of movement and marching until mid-September when it turned into a war of trenches and stalemate. Tommy Atkins has some idea why this was – he’s in the middle of it! But the challenge in this lesson is to see if, in the final lesson, he agrees with what they think was the reason for the change.

The Battle of the Aisne: Fighting the unseen foe with artillery

An illustration showing German troops marching into Belgium.

“Death-Trap” Trench: A scene on the Aisne

This image appeared in the British weekly paper, “The Graphic”, on 19 October 1914 about a month after the first trenches were dug along the Aisne river.  
The artist was not there but the caption tells us that he based his drawing on the eye-witness accounts of Private Eric Kneale who fought on the Aisne.

Stage 5

Explaining to Tommy Atkins

A role play activity designed as a plenary for this enquiry. The Teacher's notes outlines some key questions to ask students in order to bring together the overall learning from this historical enquiry.

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