Other History Topics

Matteotti Crisis

The murder of Giacomo Matteotti: a crisis for the Italian Fascists?

Giacomo Matteotti, an Italian socialist politician, was kidnapped and then murdered by members of the Fascist party on 10th June 1924.

Matteotti had been a leading member of the Italian Socialist Party but, following divisions in the party, he co-founded the Unitary Socialist Party in 1922. Matteotti became an outspoken critic of Mussolini and the Fascists, and publicly criticised the new political organisation’s use of violence in a pamphlet published in 1921.
Three years later, in 1924, Matteotti published a book that was highly critical of the new government called The Fascisti Exposed: A Year of Fascist Domination.

On 30 May that year he made a particularly zealous speech in the Chamber of Deputies in which he criticised Mussolini and accused the Fascists of only winning the recent election due to their use of violence to intimidate the public.

Less than two weeks later, on June 10, Matteotti disappeared. His neighbours reported an unknown car’s registration plate to the police who quickly found the car with blood on the back seat. Although this didn’t directly link the car to Matteotti’s disappearance, Mussolini ordered the arrest of Amerigo Dumini and other members of his recently-created Ceka secret police.

Opposition deputies showed their opposition to the Fascists by moving from the Chamber in an event known as the Aventine secession. Matteotti’s body was later found following an extensive search, showing that he had been stabbed in the chest with a carpenter’s file.

Despite a significant loss of political support, and the suggestion that he was involved in ordering the murder, Mussolini successfully turned events to his advantage. A speech in January 1925 saw him begin the transition to dictatorship when he stated that he would bring stability to Italy, even if that meant using force.

The rise of Benito Mussolini

Benito Mussolini and the first Fascist cabinet in Italy

Mussolini, who was determined to restore the glory of the Roman Empire following the ‘mutilated victory’ of the First World War, had formed the precursor to the Fascist Party in 1919. His skill as an orator, the intimidating power of his Blackshirts, and the relative weaknesses of the existing liberal government all contributed to the speed at which the Fascists gained influence.

On 24 October 1922 Mussolini went on stage at the Fascist Congress in Naples to declare his willingness to use the power of the Fascist movement to overthrow the government of liberal Prime Minister Luigi Facta. Four days later approximately 30,000 Blackshirts from around the country gathered in the capital in an event known as the March on Rome. As they filled the streets and occupied public buildings, they called for Facta’s resignation.

The Prime Minister chose to oppose the attempted revolution, but King Victor Emmanuel III refused his request to declare martial law. Stunned by the King’s rejection of military action, Facta offered his resignation which was immediately accepted. Victor Emmanuel later invited Mussolini to form a government, whose cabinet was sworn in on 31 October in front of the King himself.

The establishment of Mussolini’s government was greeted by a victory march by tens of thousands of Blackshirts. In time the March on Rome would achieve mythical status among Fascists as a revolutionary seizure of power, but the reality is that Mussolini was granted power the King. Within a few years, however, he would transform the country into a dictatorship.

Overview of Britain 1750-1900: the first industrial nation?

An overview of the causes and consequences of the Industrial Revolution in Britain taken from the BBC’s History File programme. Most suitable for KS3 but provides a good background for GCSE.

what the industrial revolution did for us

Technology in the Industrial Revolution documentary clip

An extract from a BBC documentary “What the Industrial Revolution Did for Us” presented by Dan Cruickshank. This clip explores the ideas and inventions of the Industrial Revolution and shows how they changed the nature of working life.

Tolpuddle Martyrs

Who were the Tolpuddle Martyrs? A short overview.

The industrial revolution, combined with the first of the Enclosure Acts, had seen the earnings of poor farmers plummet. With the radicalism of the French Revolution still fresh in people’s minds, the Swing Riots of the early 1830s had seen agricultural workers turn to violent protest. Adding to tensions between land owners and workers, the repeal of the Combination Acts in 1825 effectively legalised the creation of trade unions.

Victorian child factory workers

Factory life in Britain during the Industrial Revolution

An episode of the BBC’s History File presenting an overview of life in factories during the Industrial Revolution. More appropriate for KS3 students, but could be useful for GCSE as a background.

what the industrial revolution did for us

Medical changes in the Industrial Revolution video clip

An extract from a BBC documentary “What the Industrial Revolution Did for Us” presented by Dan Cruickshank. This clip explores the changes in medicine that occurred during the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution: society in late Victorian cities

A video clip presenting some aspects of life in Victorian cities.

Singeing the King of Spain's Beard

An overview of Sir Francis Drake and the ‘Singeing the King of Spain’s Beard’

On the 29th April 1587, Sir Francis Drake entered the Bay of Cádiz and attacked the Spanish naval fleet in an event known as ‘Singeing the King of Spain’s Beard’.

Tensions between Protestant England and Catholic Spain had steadily increased due to a combination of religious, economic and political factors. Alongside ongoing religious conflicts that saw the excommunication of the English ruler Elizabeth I in 1570, the Spanish were frustrated by repeated raids from English privateers against their territories in the West Indies and of English support for the Dutch Revolt against Spain.

These tensions led to the outbreak of the Anglo-Spanish War in 1585. The first months of the conflict saw Drake lead a series of attacks against Spanish possessions in the West Indies and the Americas, which prompted King Philip II of Spain to begin planning the invasion England and the restoration of Catholicism.

The Spanish king began to assemble his fleet, which was later to become known as the Armada, in the Spanish port of Cádiz and the Portuguese port of Lisbon. Meanwhile in England Queen Elizabeth put Drake in charge of a fleet that was to inspect and disrupt the Spanish preparations. He set sail on 12 April with four Royal Navy galleons and twenty smaller ships.

Drake’s fleet arrived at the Spanish port on 29 April and began to attack that evening. Having destroyed or captured numerous naval and merchant vessels Drake spent the next few weeks patrolling the coast between Cádiz and Lisbon and destroying every ship he encountered. Over one hundred ships in total were destroyed or captured, and Spanish plans for the invasion of England had to be put back for over a year.

The Supermarket and the Christmas Truce – lesson plan and resources

Sainsbury’s decision to use the story of the Christmas Truce to drive their 2014 seasonal advertising campaign provoked debate about the ethical and moral issues regarding advertising and war, but also served to bring the story of the Truce to the front of many peoples’ minds. Shortly after the advert was first shown in the UK, a cancelled Geography fieldtrip led to Year 9 students returning to their ‘normal’ lessons without their usual classroom equipment or books. I therefore chose to seize upon their interest in the Sainsbury’s advert and the story it tells to teach an impromptu lesson in which the students were asked to evaluate the advert as an historical source.  This post attempts to give an overview of the lesson I taught, and the responses from my students.

The context

A hundred years on, the Christmas Truce has become mythologised to such an extent that the stories peddled by some are dangerously misleading.  Although I’m a big fan of Horrible Histories, for example, their sketch based on the Christmas Truce focuses almost exclusively on the legend of the football match.  They do make some good references to the wider context of the war but, for a TV show that (usually) presents well-researched and accurate history, the clip below is a concern due to its emphasis on football at the expense of everything else.

Such popular histories can mean that when people think of ‘the Christmas Truce’ they imagine the entire Western Front downing arms and having a huge kick about in the middle of No Man’s Land.  This isn’t true of everyone, but UEFA’s recent series of Remembrance events has further reinforced the stereotype.  My students’ subconscious ‘knowledge’ of this was awakened by the new Sainsbury’s advert, and I was keen to think of a way to address the reality of this interpretation with my classes.

Setting It Up

I began by simply showing the advert in its entirety, and asked the students to share their initial thoughts.

Some students immediately commented on the ethical/moral debate surrounding the advert.  Whether this is because they were repeating lines that have been featured heavily in the media in recent days is unclear.  I duly noted down their responses on a huge sheet of paper, but then physically ‘put them to one side’.  I explained that we were not going to debate the pros and cons of the advert itself.  Instead we were going to analyse the advert as an historical source in order to arrive at a response to the question, ‘How much can we learn from the Sainsbury’s advert about the First World War?’

First impressions

Students were divided into groups and asked to discuss and note down their answers to four key questions to help them answer the lesson enquiry question.  I’m fortunate in having a classroom equipped with desks that are designed to be written on, and so by giving each group a couple of board markers they were able to record their responses to these questions:

  • Who made the advert?
  • Why was it made?
  • What does it tell us about the First World War?
  • What does it not tell us about the First World War?

The first two questions were designed to get students thinking about the provenance of the source, which I hoped would feed in to their answers to the next two questions about the content.  The most obvious thing they picked up on was the football match shown in the advert.  However, they also commented that the advert can be used to tell us what the soldiers wore and how they passed their time in the trenches,  One student also pointed out that the portrayal of the trenches matched with what they’d already learned about trench construction in a previous lesson.  In terms of the counter argument a student highlighted that, although the advert focuses on a truce, it doesn’t really tell us how common it was for troops to lay down their arms.  This point was developed by another who commented that the explosion that sends the two sides back to their trenches shows that the fighting continued elsewhere, even though the section of the line in the advert held a truce.  They were beginning to grasp that idea that one specific event does not prove the presence of a wider trend.

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Filling in the background

I then showed the students the ‘making of’ video, and the ‘story behind the advert’ video, both of which provided them with more contextual information.  Many noted that the ‘story behind the advert’ video clearly states that the events are fictional, but that the makers say they tried to be as accurate as possible.

After viewing these videos, students were given a few minutes to return to their group discussions, in which they began adding details about the origin and purpose of the film related to the ‘who’ and ‘why’ questions they had originally been set.  In particular, they found it important to note the involvement of the British Legion, and the presence of an historical consultant to ensure accuracy.

Who Made It?

Analysing the interpretation

It was at this point in the lesson that students began to realise that the advert was therefore an interpretation of the Truce, based on the different aims of those involved in its production.  To help them further explore this idea, I distributed two more sources of information.  Half the groups received a series of extracts from the Twitter feed of Taff Gillingham (https://twitter.com/Taff_Gillingham), the historical consultant on the advert.  The other groups were given the joint press release by the British Legion and Sainsbury’s.

With Mr Gillingham’s permission I have copied his tweets and formatted them into prose paragraphs to make them easier to read – you can download the PDF file from https://www.mrallsophistory.com/revision/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Taff-Gillingham-Twitter-combined.pdf

You can download the press release from the British Legion’s website at http://www.britishlegion.org.uk/about-us/news/remembrance/sainsburys-and-the-legion-partner-to-bring-ww1-christmas-truce-story-to-life

The students were asked to read and annotate these additional sources.  Those with the Twitter feed were able to learn about Gillingham’s own background, and noted that he is a respected commentator on the Christmas Truce.  One group highlighted the section where he tells of how he and the director didn’t want football to dominate the advert, but that “the client” (i.e. Sainsbury’s) wanted to ‘push the football hard’.  They also found it helpful to read the section where he outlines his own process of historical research to find corroborating evidence of a football match taking place.  Meanwhile the groups with the press release highlighted that the advert is referred to as ‘a creative interpretation’ although they ‘sought to make the portrayal of the truce as accurate as possible’.  Many also highlighted the charitable element of the advert.

Depending on time you may also wish to include additional sources.  The Football Remembers source pack includes some good materials.  I’ve had most success with Source 9 (which is actually one of the sources used by Taff Gillingham used when advising Sainsbury’s), Source 32, and Source 48.

Since first teaching this lesson, a previously unpublished letter has come to light which could be a great additional source.  Most sources are from lower ranking soldiers, but this is from General Walter Congreve who was awarded the Victoria Cross.  It’s particularly interesting because the majority of accounts of the Truce say that senior officers were opposed to the Truce, whereas Gen Congreve’s letter seems quite supportive of it – if only for tactical reasons.  The Daily Telegraph published a full transcript of the letter on their website, though the headline ‘The real story behind the 1914 Christmas Truce’ is to be taken wit ha pinch of salt!

It can also be interesting to contrast the portrayal of the war in the Sainsbury’s advert with that in Private Peaceful, which is taught in many Y7 English classrooms.  Although Private Peaceful  does not address the Truce, it offers an almost-entirely opposing interpretation of the war in general and can provide a good stimulus for a discussion of audience.

Reaching a conclusion

Students with different sources then paired off to share their new-found insights with each other.  This led to some interesting debate, with one pair commenting that the purpose of the historical account – i.e. Sainsbury’s desire to advertise their product – meant that some of the nuanced history from Gillingham’s research was lost.  This final piece of paired work also enabled students to discuss the overall lesson question to reach a conclusion about how much the advert can teach us about the First World War.  Using a technique shared by Patrick O’Shaughnessy on Twitter (https://twitter.com/historychappy), students then recorded their opinions on Post-It notes which they stuck to the board to form a continuum. These views were discussed as a plenary activity.

Sainsbury's Continuum

Since first teaching this lesson five days ago, it is clear that many of the students have watched the advert again.  They have found yet more historical references in the advert, some of which I’m sure they will have been looking for after reading Gillingham’s tweets.  Although I recognise that there is an important debate to be had about Sainsbury’s decision to produce this advert, I believe that we have the opportunity to use it as a springboard to address the real history of the Christmas Truce and correct the myths and legends that overshadow the reality of life on the Western Front at the end of 1914.

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