As I’ve mentioned before, one of the greatest privileges of studying at the UCL Institute of Education in London is being able to make the most of the opportunities that regularly arise if you keep your eyes and ears open. One such moment recently came around when the institute partnered up with the charity Blind Veterans UK to bring the history of blinded WWI veterans to the classroom.
One of the reasons why the First World War was such a seminal development was that military technology had rapidly outpaced the evolution of medicine. The injuries inflicted on soldiers through new types of weaponry exceeded what most military doctors had seen before, and there was almost no government infrastructure to adequately care for injured veterans who escaped death and returned home. Crucially, shrapnel, gunshots and gas left increasing numbers of soldiers partially or completely blind. Doctors and nurses did their best to patch these men up and treat to their wounds, but there was little to no institutional state provision that might help blinded veterans to lead successful lives beyond the hospital.
This is where the charity Blind Veterans UK comes in. Established in 115 under the name St Dunstan’s, the charity was created to help blinded veterans to lead independent lives through offering them community, leisure activities, and – perhaps most crucially – vocational training. Even though the charity’s official slogan was ‘Victory over Blindness’, many said its aim was to help veterans to ‘learn to be blind’. Blind Veterans UK is a fascinating example of the impact and legacy of the First World War, and the charity holds a comprehensive archive of all its documents, objects, photographs and much more. In an attempt to educate the wider public about the history of blinded veterans, the charity has started a project with the Institute of Education to create a lesson sequence based on its extensive archive material – and I was immediately eager to get involved.
Working with three other teachers and the charity’s archivist, I spent several days in the archive to research the stories of the many men and women who passed through its gates. Digging deep into the material has been an exciting and often touching experience. I think it is fair to say that the charity provided life-changing opportunities to people who had feared that they might never be able to live independently again, but without a doubt this also involved hardship and loss. Overall, the stories I have come across showed people trying to claw their way back to a normal and happy life under very adverse conditions. Within our team, we are working on an exciting set of lessons that will explore these human stories within their wider historical context and – I hope – make them relevant to a new and younger audience. This is what working with the Blind Veterans archive has helped me put right back at the forefront of my teaching: history education should never be just about the large-scale developments of world history. It must seek to rescue the experience of ordinary people from the silence of oblivion.