Passchendaele activities

Page 3 – Turning boys into men

It is a sobering experience to look at the lists that hang on the walls of many schools throughout New Zealand of those killed in the First World War or to see old photos of sports teams and match faces to casualty lists. Schools have honoured, mourned and glorified these ex-pupils, but to what extent must they accept some responsibility for the carnage of the First World War? What role did schools play in turning boys into soldiers?

Consider the experiences of Wellington College under the leadership of J.P. Firth. He was regarded by many at the time as a man to emulate when it came to school management. Schools, he believed, should produce honourable men of good character who would become good citizens. The historian Jock Phillips argues that, for Firth, learning was to be subordinate to character. In Firth’s eyes, the urban world of the early 20th century was a dangerous place where boys were at risk of physical and moral softening.

Yet how do these attitudes and values fit with Firth’s own experiences as the school’s casualty list mounted? He knew each of the 222 old boys who were killed during the war. Personal memories would have come flooding back as he wrote letters of condolence to their families. When the armistice was declared in November 1918, he was observed standing on the steps overlooking the bottom field with tears running down his face. This is not the image of the stereotypical imperialistic school master.

At the outset of war, Firth, like many others, would have had no perception of the scale of suffering his ex-pupils were about to experience. Yet to what extent must men such as him shoulder some of the responsibility for the pain and suffering of so many? Was he a man of his times or a victim of his times?

Use the features Preparing for war – First World War overview and Passchendaele: fighting for Belgium as well as any other material you can find to help you complete any or all of the following activities.

1. Parliamentary speech

Imagine it is December 1909. You are James Allen, the minister of defence. You are to give a speech in Parliament outlining why you believe the new Defence Act that is about to come into effect is so important to the country. In particular, you want to stress the importance of the requirement that all boys aged between 12 and 14 undergo 52 hours of physical training each year as Junior Cadets. Your speech should be two to three minutes long and should have at least three points justifying compulsory military training in schools.

2. Playground conversation

Imagine it is the start of the school year in 1910. You are a 14-year-old boy. It is the opening assembly of the year, and your principal has just announced that your school will be implementing the government’s new requirements that all boys between 12 and 14 undergo 52 hours of physical training each year as Junior Cadets. Up until now, your school has had a voluntary cadet force, and you have avoided having anything to do with it. At lunchtime, you and some of your friends talk about this decision and how it will affect you. Those already involved with the school’s voluntary cadets think it is a great idea. Explain to them why you disagree. Remember some of them are committed to the cadets, so you should consider the fact that they think you have been shirking your responsibility for too long already. See if you can identify three reasons why schools should not be a place where military training of any description takes place.

3. Class debate 

Debate the topic ‘Men like Wellington College’s J.P. Firth were victims of their times and can’t be expected to take responsibility for what happened to so many ex-pupils during the First World War.’

  • Divide your class into four groups.
  • Two groups are to prepare arguments that support the notion that men like Firth have to shoulder some of the blame for the suffering experienced by ex-pupils during the war.
  • The other two groups are to prepare arguments that support the notion that Firth was a victim of his times and in no way can he be blamed for what happened to his ex-pupils.
  • From the groups, select six students to debate this point, applying the usual rules of a formal debate with a team in the affirmative, a team in the negative, speaking times, etc.

4. Writing to those at the front

For those fighting overseas, mail from family and loved ones provided an important link with home and a welcome distraction from the hardships of war. More than 1600 men who had, at some point, attended Wellington College also received a postcard from their former principal, J.P. Firth. Firth had postcards made that showed an etching of the East School, and he used these to write to each old boy. None of these postcards have survived as they were often left pinned to the walls of billets and dugouts in the hope that fellow old boys might pass that way.

Imagine you are J.P. Firth writing one of these postcards to an ex-pupil. What do you think he might say? What do you think these ex-pupils might want to hear about? Write a postcard (100 words) that Firth might have written to a Wellington College old boy during the war.

How to cite this page

'Turning boys into men', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 13-Jan-2016