"Eddie And Us," Or Reflections On A Class Project To Commemorate A Fallen Soldier Of The Great War


  • Graham Broad King's University College at the University of Western Ontario




     In September 2006, I challenged the members of my senior seminar class at the University of Western Ontario to research the life of a student from their school who fought and died in World War I. For the students, what began as a straightforward class project rapidly transformed into something much more profound. They devoted far greater effort to it than I had expected; some even continued their research long after the course had ended. For many, the project marked their immersion into "doing" history in the manner of historians. They chased small leads through primary sources, worked in archives, conducted interviews, wrote grant proposals, and experienced, as one student put it, "the disappointment of the dead end and the excitement of a new and unexpected find." Along the way, they illuminated the remarkable and tragically brief life of a forgotten young man who, in his own time, had been a star athlete, hometown hero, and, for a very brief moment in 1916, one of the most famous soldiers in the British Empire.       
     The story of the class project began several years ago. In March 2001, while working as a teaching assistant at the University of Western Ontario, I gave my first lecture in a university classroom, shaking and sweating my way through a fifty-minute overview of Canadian participation in the First World War. It was not a good lecture, and my clip-on microphone, which I probably didn't need in the first place, kept cutting in and out. After about thirty minutes, all the telltale signs of a classroom lost were there: The pens were down, eyes had glazed over, and heads were beginning to droop. I stumbled on. Near the end of my time I played the only significant card I had. I encouraged students to consider that Canadians who fought and died in the Great War were mostly young people like themselves. "And this is one of them," I said, clicking to my PowerPoint slide of Eddie McKay, a Western student who had been killed in 1917. I had discovered him in a footnote in a book about the university's history, and then found a grainy photograph of him in a crumbling clip file about the school's rugby team. I told students the bare-bones facts that I knew about McKay. He had been a student at Western in 1914, had played left wing on the rugby team, and served overseas, but his youth and athleticism had not saved him from being killed in the mud and blood of the Western Front. I thought I detected a moment of renewed attention and reflection in the classroom, and I let it linger for a few moments before dismissing them. Afterwards, a student told me that he was on the rugby team, too, and that the end of my lecture was "the first time I've ever thought about anything."


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How to Cite

Broad, Graham. 2011. “‘Eddie And Us,’ Or Reflections On A Class Project To Commemorate A Fallen Soldier Of The Great War”. Teaching History: A Journal of Methods 36 (1):3-13. https://doi.org/10.33043/TH.36.1.3-13.