Magazine

The art of memorising the dates of battles

(clockwise) Painting depicting Battle of Edgehill; painting depicting Battle of Waterloo; photograph of German Dornier DO-17 bomber unloading bombs during the Battle of Britain; painting depicting Battle of Towton; painting depicting Battle of Trafalgar

Would-be British citizens will reportedly have to learn the dates of battles as part of a new test. But for those who struggle to remember their 1066s and their 1805s, what's the easiest way to train your memory, asks Susie Boniface.

Generations of schoolchildren have been forced to learn the dates of famous battles.

It's now a fate that could be shared by those trying to become British citizens. Key victories - such as the Battle of Trafalgar - will reportedly form part of a revised test.

But memorising dates is not always easy. And those who are good at it rely on more than just rote learning.

One trick is mnemonics, a way of linking memorable phrases or images to the information you want to remember. Many people, for example, know the phrase Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain is a way of remembering the order of colours of the rainbow - red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.

"A collection of numbers means nothing and will just blur together in your mind unless you can find a way to attach significance to them," says memory champion and author Dominic O'Brien. "If you want to remember the Battle of Trafalgar was in 1805 you could picture an 18-year-old holding his hands up saying give me five, for example."

Memory "grandmaster" James Ponder, who takes part in international memory championships, uses his own mnemonic system by associating individual images with whatever he needs to memorise.

The trick is associating information with things you already recall well.

"If I wanted to memorise 1066 as the date of the Battle of Hastings, I'd think about my old school teacher who was called Mr Hastings.

"I have a system of different images to remember numbers, so I'd forget the 1 and think of 066 which in my system is an image of a paintbrush. Then I'd think of Mr Hastings with a paintbrush."

Long-term memory works in a different way to short-term memory.

"If you need to memorise 20 dates you'd have to repeat them to yourself over and over again, and do it for several days, before they cross from one to the other," says Ponder.

"With my system you could come up with some images in five minutes, repeat them once or twice, and they're logged."

As with all tests, there's a risk people could cram the information before but then soon forget it afterwards.

Professor of psychology Joydeep Bhattacharya, of Goldsmiths University of London, recently did the current test.

"Memory works by association so if you want to learn something new you will retain it best if it is linked to an emotion, image or experience," he says.

"When you are dealing with adults you have to engage them and explain why something is important, provide some context, if you want them to learn.

Bhattacharya, who emigrated to the UK from India several years ago, said interactive methods - such as lessons, videos or audio files - would help more than a simple handbook.

"I did the citizenship test myself last year and even though I am an academic and my English is good I found it very dry and unengaging."

But even if you can remember dates there's always been vigorous debate over whether it plays an important part in knowledge of history.

"Dates are absolutely vital for any narrative understanding of history because mathematically they explain what comes before and after," says historian Andrew Roberts. "It's very welcome that the government has chosen to demand a knowledge of dates although we could all debate which ones are really important for British history."

But "fetishising" the learning of dates presents its own dangers, suggests Cambridge University classics professor Mary Beard.

"It's saying the most important thing to know about the Battle of Trafalgar is when it happened, rather than what happened, and that cannot possibly be a sensible way forward.

"If on the other hand you don't know that the Battle of Hastings came before the Battle of Trafalgar, then you have a problem. It's about context. Dates are important but it's not the only thing you need to be able to know."