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DOMINIC SANDBROOK: My quest to teach Britain’s children about the heroes of history

DOMINIC SANDBROOK My quest to teach Britains children about the


The past has always provoked fierce arguments, but rarely has it felt so embattled. 

From the activist mobs daubing statues with graffiti to the supine university administrators ‘cancelling’ titanic figures such as the philosopher David Hume and the statesman William Gladstone, we seem to be in the grip of a rage against history itself.

Even children’s classrooms, it seems, are not safe from this ideological mania. 

A week ago, Britain’s biggest teaching union, the National Education Union, instructed its 450,000 members to turn history lessons into seminars on ‘British imperialism and racism’, all the way from nurseries to colleges.

So much, then, for the thrill of studying Greece and Rome, the mystery of the Anglo-Saxons or the high drama of the Middle Ages! 

The priority, according to the union, must be to lecture children about ‘white privilege and colonialism’.

It’s tempting to say that all this makes me intensely cross, but it actually makes me terribly sad.

The past has always provoked fierce arguments, but rarely has it felt so embattled, writes DOMINIC SANDRBOOK. Writing for children forces you to make your mind up, and to strip away the layers of evasion. Churchill (above), for example: hero or zero?

The past has always provoked fierce arguments, but rarely has it felt so embattled, writes DOMINIC SANDRBOOK. Writing for children forces you to make your mind up, and to strip away the layers of evasion. Churchill (above), for example: hero or zero?

I’ve been passionate about the past ever since I was a boy, when I was addicted to Ladybird books about characters such as Elizabeth I and Horatio Nelson. 

In the years that followed, I studied history at Oxford and Cambridge, taught at some of Britain’s best universities and have written about the lessons of history in the pages of the Mail.

But rarely have I felt so depressed about the state of history — the most exciting subject in the world, which deserves better than to be used as an indoctrination tool by political narcissists, pandering academics and professional victims.

I had already started thinking about all this in the autumn of 2019, when my wife and I took our history-crazed son Arthur, then eight, on an outing to London’s Imperial War Museum. 

At school he’d been learning about World War II evacuees, and was keen to inspect the military hardware of the time. 

When we got to the gift shop, I scoured the shelves for a children’s history of the war. 

I wanted something that would tell him the whole story, with all the great characters — Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, Montgomery — as well as a rollicking narrative and lots of drama.

But I couldn’t find what I wanted. Bookshops are full of children’s histories of, say, the U.S. civil rights movement. But amazingly, there was no dramatic narrative of the greatest conflict in our history.

B ookshops are full of children's histories of, say, the U.S. civil rights movement. But amazingly, there was no dramatic narrative of the greatest conflict in our history. I wanted something that would tell him the whole story, with all the great characters — Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, Montgomery (pictured) — as well as a rollicking narrative and lots of drama

B ookshops are full of children’s histories of, say, the U.S. civil rights movement. But amazingly, there was no dramatic narrative of the greatest conflict in our history. I wanted something that would tell him the whole story, with all the great characters — Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, Montgomery (pictured) — as well as a rollicking narrative and lots of drama

‘Well, Daddy,’ said Arthur, ‘why don’t you write it ?’ And that’s how he and I came up with the idea of Adventures In Time, a series of books retelling the great moments of history for children, from the world wars and the Tudors to Alexander the Great and Cleopatra.

For me, it has become the mission of a lifetime. At a time when history is under unrelenting attack, this is my personal crusade to convert Britain’s young readers to the joys of the past, free from political dogma or ideological prejudice.

From the start, I was determined to write with children in mind, not adults. There was no question of pandering to the weird obsessions of the present. 

All that mattered were the stories and the characters, from the women who knitted at the foot of the guillotine during revolutionary France’s Reign of Terror, to the white-faced lads from Accrington who swallowed their fear and charged over the top on the first day of the Somme.

I soon realised this would be the greatest challenge of my writing life, far tougher than writing my post-war histories for adults. 

After all, how do you explain the course of World War II, with its dark chapters and dramatic twists, to a nine-year-old boy who may not be able to place Germany on a map?

Children have no time for meandering explanations and mealy mouthed over-complications. They want to know what happened, why and to whom, with well-defined characters and no messing about. Every line, every word counts.

Pretty soon I realised the answer was not to lecture the young readers about the moralistic manias of the present, but to let the stories — sometimes inspirational, sometimes heart-breaking, but always gripping — take centre stage.

One chapter of my World War II book, for example, tells the story of a young man called Geoffrey Wellum. In the summer of 1939 he was a teenage schoolboy daydreaming of cricket and girls. A year later he was a death-defying Spitfire pilot, locked in a mid-air dance of death with a German Messerschmitt above the green fields of England

One chapter of my World War II book, for example, tells the story of a young man called Geoffrey Wellum. In the summer of 1939 he was a teenage schoolboy daydreaming of cricket and girls. A year later he was a death-defying Spitfire pilot, locked in a mid-air dance of death with a German Messerschmitt above the green fields of England

Unsurprisingly, I was drawn to the stories of individual heroes, men and women who stood up to be counted against terrible odds.

One chapter of my World War II book, for example, tells the story of a young man called Geoffrey Wellum.

 In the summer of 1939 he was a teenage schoolboy daydreaming of cricket and girls.  

A year later he was a death-defying Spitfire pilot, locked in a mid-air dance of death with a German Messerschmitt above the green fields of England.

Geoffrey had taken off from Biggin Hill at dawn, part of an RAF squadron racing to intercept the Luftwaffe. 

He shot down two German bombers — but then, as he turned for home, the Messerschmitt swooped down behind him, bullets thudding into his plane.

Round and round they circled, Geoffrey almost blacking out from sheer effort, hoping to throw off the Messerschmitt before his plane broke up. 

And at last, in the corner of his eye he saw the German plane judder and knew that it was struggling to keep up. 

That was Geoffrey’s chance to dive for safety, leaving his pursuer far behind, the Spitfire screaming towards home.

Another chapter tells an even more riveting story: the tale of Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, a glamorous woman who ran a French Resistance network under the codename ‘the Hedgehog’.

By the spring of 1941 she was running agents all over France, passing information to the British. 

I've been passionate about the past ever since I was a boy, when I was addicted to Ladybird books about characters such as Elizabeth I (depicted above by Cate Blanchett in the film Elizbaeth: The Golden Age) and Horatio Nelson

I’ve been passionate about the past ever since I was a boy, when I was addicted to Ladybird books about characters such as Elizabeth I (depicted above by Cate Blanchett in the film Elizbaeth: The Golden Age) and Horatio Nelson

At one point, cornered by the police, she climbed into a mail sack and had herself posted to Spain, where an agent collected her and handed her a celebratory bottle of brandy.

In 1944, the Gestapo caught her, and it seemed over. But once they locked her cell door, the Hedgehog took off her clothes, squeezed through the bars of her cell window and ran for cover, naked.

Who said history was boring?

The second book in the series is The Six Wives Of Henry VIII, with the twists of Tudor court. 

But I also wanted to write about people such as Anne Askew, a woman who went to the rack after arguing everybody should be allowed to read the Bible in English. 

Even as her torturers stretched her body until the bones popped from their sockets, she refused to betray her friends.

In the end, Henry’s guards dragged her to Smithfield to burn her as a heretic. But as they lit the pyre, it exploded. 

One of Anne’s friends had hidden gunpowder under the wood, so her suffering would not be prolonged.

Lord Nelson (above) was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805

Lord Nelson (above) was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805

These days some people shudder at the thought of giving such material to children, even though stories such as The Hobbit and Star Wars are full of battles and monsters.

They’ve clearly never met boys like my son. Since we were in lockdown, I managed to persuade (well, bribe) him to read every chapter as I wrote it, crossing out anything he found boring or incomprehensible. 

At first there were an awful lot of crossings out, but he became more tolerant eventually.

Parents of small boys will not be surprised to learn that Arthur gave me approving ticks for battle scenes, with extra-large ticks for executions, fighter planes and machine guns.

Any mention of hanging, drawing and quartering brought so many ticks it was hard to read the rest of the page.

One of Arthur’s favourite scenes took place on D-Day, when an American soldier called Harold Baumgarten, a Jewish teenager from New York, fights his way up the beach, hand to hand, while his comrades fall around him. 

His best friend is shot in the shallows, and Harold can’t hold back the tears.

Then a shell explodes next to him, ripping off his left cheek and part of his jaw. Yet somehow, murmuring a Jewish prayer he learned back home as a boy, Harold keeps going.

When my editor read that bit, he said: ‘Really? For children?’ I pointed out that not only did Arthur love that scene, but his best friend Con said it was the best thing in the book. So it stayed in.

In the Six Wives book, too, it was the gory details that stuck in my small readers’ minds. 

Arthur and his friends loved a section about Henry VIII’s gargantuan fatness, relishing the information that to relieve his appalling piles, his doctors used to insert a greased metal tube up his bottom. 

This was attached to a pig’s bladder, and from this the doctors squirted mixtures of salt water and herbs or milk and honey into his bowels.

Once again, my editor raised his eyebrows. Again I pointed out my young readers declared this the most enjoyable scene in the book.

What really surprised me, though, is how much I myself learned about history along the way.

Writing for adults, it’s sometimes tempting to hide behind complexity, piling nuance upon nuance until you say nothing much at all. 

But writing for children forces you to make your mind up, and to strip away the layers of evasion. Churchill, for example: hero or zero?

As it happened, I was writing the first book during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in London. 

To me, spending my days immersed in the 1940s, there was something shocking, even surreal about seeing Churchill’s statue attacked by far-Left activists, as if he ought to be remembered as one of history’s villains.

For when you get down to the essentials, Churchill’s place in history is blindingly obvious. 

My series Adventures In Time, retells the great moments of history for children, from the world wars and the Tudors to Alexander the Great and Cleopatra (depicted above by Elizabeth Taylor)

My series Adventures In Time, retells the great moments of history for children, from the world wars and the Tudors to Alexander the Great and Cleopatra (depicted above by Elizabeth Taylor)

This was the man whose ‘never surrender’ speech, coming when Britain’s fortunes were at their lowest, was cheered on every side of the Commons.

Some hard-bitten MPs wept. One Labour MP told Churchill his speech was ‘worth a thousand guns’. So Churchill, a villain? Seriously? Just try telling that to any ten-year-old.

Writing episodes like this reminded me just why history matters.

Too often the study of the past is reduced to sterile arguments and finger-pointing debates, engulfed in the tawdry politics of shame and victimhood.

But telling a story for children, who have probably never encountered it before, forces you to get back to basics: character, drama and human detail. 

The courage of an escaped POW, crawling to freedom across a snow-bound Alpine field. 

The bloated face of Henry VIII, as he reaches for another bowl of custard; the trembling knees of poor Catherine Howard, as her guards help her onto the scaffold.

That’s why we fall in love with history as children, isn’t it? That, and the thrilling uncertainty when you don’t know how the story ends.

Above all, working on these books took me back to my own memories of childhood reading, from the Greek myths and the legends of King Arthur to the drama of Trafalgar and the heroism of D-Day.

No doubt this would baffle the National Education Union and its fellow travellers, for whom the past is a source of horror and shame.

But we, of all people, should be proud of our history. It’s not perfect, but it’s rousing, dramatic, moving, terrifying, hilarious and inspiring — and above all, it’s fun.

And of course it’s better than any novel — because it’s true.

Adventures In Time: The Second World War and Adventures In Time: The Six Wives of Henry VIII, both by Dominic Sandbrook, are published by Particular Books at £14.99 each. 

To order a copy of either for £13.34 go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. 

Free UK delivery on orders over £20. Promotional price valid until 27/07/2021. 

The next two books in the series, Alexander The Great, and The First World War, will be published in November.



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