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What does heroism mean to you?

What does heroism mean to you?
This was a war fought against a generation of weapons technology that you might think would make a nonsense of individual heroism. There is no heroism against the anonymity of the machine gun bullet. And it is this Victorian myth of heroism that gets challenged in the trenches.
It’s about those values of comradeship and commitment, compassion and courage.
Heroism is about concepts of courage, duty, and honour. The truth is not everyone in those circumstances would have done it. It is this heroism which led all of these people to join up and go to the battle field, and get slaughtered.
For me the great unsung hero of the First World War is the housewife, who quite possibly was more instrumental in winning the war than has been acknowledged. My great grandfather, Sergeant Edward Dillon, served with the field ambulance with the New Zealand division on the Somme in 1916. His job was to go out and bring back the wounded from the trenches.
I would think of a rather unusual group as my heroes, which is all the soldiers, and nurses, and other people who suffered from shell shock. My great uncle, Second Lieutenant Algie Davidson in the Sea Forth Highlanders, who was killed on the first day of the battle of Arras in April 1917. One person who really springs to my mind as I look at heroism from that time, is somebody who dedicated his life, really, to insuring the conflict was remembered. Fabian Ware, who set up the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, really did make a difference to how we think about those who died in conflict.
What we need to do is to examine, to interrogate, to put pressure on the very word heroism. What does it mean to us today?

What does heroism mean to you? When you think of a hero or a heroine from World War 1, what springs to mind?

This video from the BBC shows an abridged version of the responses. You will find the full accounts later in the course.

Thanks to so many of you for responding to the survey about what WW1 heroism means to you. We received hundreds of varied responses, which we found very interesting.

The majority of answers named groups rather than individuals. Some suggested that anyone who died while on active service was a hero – “the lists of names on war memorials”. There were also some who mentioned military heroes – British fighter pilot Albert Ball, for example, was named by several of you, as was the German ‘Red Baron’, Manfred Von Richthofen who we will be looking at in Week 3. Many singled out those who had cared for or helped to save the wounded – particularly medics, including doctors, nurses and stretcher-bearers. The individual named most often was Edith Cavell, a British nurse and member of a Belgian resistance network. You’ll be finding out more about her in the case-study in week 2.

There were also some less traditional heroes named – poets, conscientious objectors and factory workers for example. And finally, many of you also named relatives – grandfathers and great-grandfathers (and in some cases, great-grandmothers), who had participated in different ways in the war. Many of us are drawn to learn more about the First World War because of the ways it touched our own family histories. The mass mobilisation of civilians during the war, which meant that most families felt directly involved, is something that we will argue brought about a change in the ways that heroism was understood.

What’s clear is that some of the answers wouldn’t have been the answers most likely given if people had been asked the same question in 1914, 1918 or 1945. It’s also the case that the answers will probably vary if you ask people from different countries. The way in which our understandings of what makes a hero have changed over the last hundred years, and the way they vary in different countries, is something we will be discussing a lot during the next three weeks, and we are looking forward to hearing more from all of you through the comments.

To summarise, this word picture shows some of the key words and phrases from the survey. You can also find out the views of the educators and other subject experts from the See also section below.

Have your say:

Of course you may have come up with something completely different. If that is the case please use the comments to share this with your fellow learners, explaining your choice.

Learning log

Throughout this course you will be encouraged to research and reflect. To get the most from the course, we suggest you keep a learning log. This can be used to record your thoughts and as a way of gathering images, comments and other artifacts.

If you would like to record your learning why not create a course pin-board? There are many resources freely available to enable you to do this. If you do not already have a favourite we suggest you use Padlet; we have provided a short video or user guide to get you started. Alternatively we have provided a document that you can use as a log, available from the Downloads section below.

However you choose to record your learning please add photos, videos, prose or poems to your log as you move through the course. Why not start by documenting what heroism in World War 1 means to you?

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World War 1: Changing Faces of Heroism

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