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The Children’s War: Britain, 1914-1918, by Rosie Kennedy

A. W. Purdue on how children shared in the nation’s experience of the First World War

The First World War involved the mobilisation of whole societies to levels unprecedented in previous wars. Even the UK was forced, reluctantly, to introduce conscription, while the demands of the war effort led to the state organising and directing the lives of civilians. But it was not only adults who became mentally and physically committed to the war for, as Rosie Kennedy demonstrates in this fascinating study, children were mobilised and, to a large extent, mobilised themselves. They shared the experience of the nation and the war imbued every aspect of their lives; they “were not shielded from its dramas, exempt from its hardships, or immune to its tragedies”.

Children were not, of course, exposed to physical danger and nor, indeed, were most adult civilians, since the distinction between the home front and the fighting fronts was maintained. If aerial bombing by Zeppelins and Gotha bombers caused panic, their raids were only a taste of what was to come in the 1939-45 war, and the mass evacuation of children was not necessary. Nevertheless, death came to families, and one brutal statistic alone justifies Kennedy’s claims that children experienced the war’s tragedies: more than 350,000 children lost their fathers and, she adds, with the “722,785 British servicemen who died, many thousands more would have lost brothers, cousins, uncles, friends and neighbours”.

War required a population that was not just physically conscripted but also mentally mobilised. Children became as committed to the war effort, as convinced of the justice of the nation’s cause, and as determined on victory as anyone else. The war imbued every aspect of their lives: their education; their home lives, for families were separated; their play and the magazines, comics and books they read; the voluntary organisations, such as the Scouts and Guides, to which they belonged; and the attitudes and ideals that were to shape their adult lives. Adherence to the national cause was crucial, for no one knew how long the conflict would continue and, as the death toll mounted, the character, morale and determination of the next generation of soldiers and civilians mattered greatly.

Some historians have recently challenged many of the views of UK society during the war that were largely formed long after the conflict’s end and which tended to see not only servicemen but the population as a whole as helpless victims of a war over which they had no control, and they have argued instead that support for the war was positive and remained strong. Kennedy extends this argument to children, contending that they were, at least mentally, part of a society mobilised for war and, while influenced by parents, school and the books and comics they read, became firmly committed to the cause. They exhibited a strong desire to participate and, just as their games and reading enabled them to do so imaginatively, uniformed youth organisations allowed them to feel physically part of it.

Did the war change British childhood, as some say it changed society? Kennedy points to reforms in education and healthcare that improved children’s lives, but she is rightly sceptical as to whether it was the experience of the war or more long-term changes already in evidence before 1914 that altered the experience of childhood. Her analysis of wartime children’s games and literature demonstrates continuity from the Edwardian period, with novels for boys of the G. A. Henty genre simply changing the settings for their young heroes’ adventures from the wars of Empire to the war in France. Novels for girls, however, such as those by Angela Brazil, did begin to feature daring girls driving tractors or foiling German spy rings. The war may not have irrevocably altered UK childhood, but, for a generation of children, their imaginative play, the books they read and their ideals echoed the war that shaped their lives.

This study, which began life as a PhD thesis and is based on extensive research, is an important contribution to our knowledge of British society during the Great War. It is also eminently readable.

The Children’s War: Britain, 1914-1918

By Rosie Kennedy
Palgrave Macmillan, 208pp, £50.00
ISBN 9780230221758
Published 14 February 2014

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