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KS3/4 History: From the Four Corners 1 (1940)

1 of 2: Why did Commonwealth troops sign up to fight?

Main image of KS3/4 History: From the Four Corners 1 (1940)
Author James Townsend
TopicWWII Commonwealth troops
Key WordsEmpire, Commonwealth, colony, propaganda
Show full lesson spec

Troops from the four corners of the British Empire meet by chance in London during WWII and discuss their shared history, common values and reasons for joining the allied forces in this British propaganda film produced in 1941.

A useful film for looking at government propaganda during WWII as well as a starting point for considering the contribution of the Commonwealth troops in WWII. There is also scope to explore the interpretation of 'British values' that the film promotes and this offers a nice way into a comparison of what are perceived as British values today.

This lesson idea looks at the portrayal of Commonwealth troops in From the Four Corners and asks students to evaluate the utility of the film as evidence of why Commonwealth soldiers fought in WWII. The lesson assumes that students will have some prior knowledge of why Commonwealth troops joined the conflict.

Lesson Objective

  • To understand why Commonwealth soldiers fought in the war, evaluate the reliability of the source as evidence and consider the role of Empire in defining a sense of 'Britishness' in the past and present.


Why not start with a post-it note brainstorm. Ask pupils to write down their ideas in response to the following question: Why was the Second World War called a 'World' war? Invite students to stick their post-its to the board and lead a discussion based on a selection of their ideas.

Before moving into the main part of the lesson, students may well need to review some of the background information about Commonwealth troops joining the war:

  • Canada: declared war on Germany on the 10th September 1939. The first Canadian troops arrived in Britain in December of that year.
  • New Zealand: declared war on Germany on the 3rd September 1939 and by 1942 there were over 150,000 New Zealanders in the Armed Forces.
  • Australia: declared war on Germany on the 3rd September 1939. 560,000 Australian Imperial Force members served overseas in WWII.

Main Attraction

Ask small groups of students to note down their ideas about why individual Commonwealth troops might join the army, especially Australian and New Zealand troops, whose countries were so far from European action.

Watch the film through as a class - the provenance of the film should not be explained at this point. As they watch the film, as students to record the reasons the film gives for why the Commonwealth troops joined the conflict.

After reviewing what pupils learned from the film, ask each group to decide, according to the film, the main reason why Commonwealth Soldiers joined their national armies and hear a selection of the groups' responses.

But how useful is the film as evidence of why soldiers from the Commonwealth signed up? What did students pick up about the provenance of the film? Did students notice any clues in the film to suggest that it was a piece of propaganda? Lead a discussion on the possible motives behind the film. Who do students think this film would have been shown to?

Encourage students to compare the interpretation offered in the film with their own knowledge or research into the subject, giving the film a score out of 10 for reliability (where one = wholly unreliable).


End Credits

Finish off by exploring the films representation of the relationship between Britain and the Commonwealth. Can students explain the soldiers' reaction to the woman who congratulates them on fighting for the 'motherland'? Why does Leslie Howard emphasise that the Commonwealth countries could have decided to opt out of the fighting? What do these factors suggest about Britain's relationship with her former colonies?

This might be developed into extension work on different interpretations of Empire - perhaps a comparison between the attitude to Empire in the 1940s compared with Britain's attitude to her Imperial past today. How important was Empire in defining 'Britishness' in the past and how relevant is Empire today?


External Links

Video Clips
1. Pub chat (3:16)
2. Typically English (1:03)
3. Hearts and minds (1:40)
Downloadable Teaching Resources
Why did men from the Commonwealth sign up?

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of From the Four Corners (1941)From the Four Corners (1941)

Read more about this film

See also

Thumbnail image of KS3/4 History: From the Four Corners 2 (1941)KS3/4 History: From the Four Corners 2 (1941)

2 of 2: British values past and present

Thumbnail image of Essentially British?: From the Four Corners (1940)Essentially British?: From the Four Corners (1940)

Material to accompany the BFI Mediatheque 'Essentially British' DVD.