|A Jewish child in Bergen Belsen April 1945|
In the simplest sense that is right but it ignores a whole aspect of children’s lives and development which, during the twentieth century, was profoundly affected by the First and Second World wars as well as other, more recent, conflicts.
|A tank made out of a packet of woodbines reminding one|
that war produces toys and games as well as terror.
War changes lives. It changes lives for the better and the worse, for the unexpected and the unpredictable. For some children the Second World War had a devastating effect on their homes and families so that they never recovered from the shock of it. For others it literally made them. Evacuation during the war offered some city children the opportunity for a better life, a chance at education and even, for some, a place at university that would have been unthinkable from the standpoint of their pre-war lives. For boys caught in the poverty trap at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century a career in the army could offer them a life away from the streets, from trouble. Again, it could literally make them.
For Boy Scouts and Girl Guides the opportunities presented by the lack of young men and women, who had been enlisted for the services and war work, were exciting. They worked as fire fighters and nursing assistants, couriers and stretcher bearers. Some were even sent to relieve the concentration camps in Europe in 1945.
It is a topic worthy of examination since most of us, in one way or another, have some sort of experience of war, even if for children of today it is only what we see on the television.
The subject of boy soldiers is one that conjures up the ranks of young men who lied about their age to enlist in 1914 and 1915 to fight for King and Country. Yet it was not unusual for boys to be engaged by the Army and Navy. The Army had a long tradition of boy drummers while the cavalry employed boy trumpeters. For some boys, who had got into trouble with the Law, there was a choice for them between going to prison or ‘taking the option’ which meant agreeing to serve in the Forces. For those who took the option a life in the Army could offer them opportunities and adventure beyond their wildest dreams.
|A boy soldier in 1907 (C) Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum|
The propaganda run by the government in the early years of the First World War appealed to young men’s sense of patriotism, which bordered on Jingoism. It was hugely successful and drew in boys as well as to young men. According to the historian, Richard van Emden, 250,000 underage boys succeeded in slipping through the net, despite protests from many parties. Of those, thousands died and much of the pity of the First World War is directed at the lost generation of young men, those who had died young. In the Second World War the government had no need for a general advertising campaign to recruit for the Forces as conscription had been introduced several months before the War broke out. What the poster campaigns during the Second World War fixed on was specific appeals. The RAF appealed to young men’s sense of adventure and patriotism; the WAAF and ATS encouraged young women to think of contributing actively towards the war by enlisting.
|Children being evacuated to Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire, 31 August 1939|
The shake-up caused by the mass movement of civilians was felt to an even greater extent on the continent where children were fleeing not just from the threat of aerial bombardment but from a far greater menace, which was the threat of genocide and systematic annihilation. England offered children shelter long before the Second World War. In 1915 a quarter of a million Belgians, including tens of thousands of children, came to Britain.
In 1937 4,000 Basque children
arrived in Southampton to seek shelter from the Civil War that was tearing
their country apart. And then there was
the threat from the Nazis for Jews, Gypsies, Siitis and other so-called
‘Undesirables’. For these children the
flight from terror often meant that almost everything they had had prior to the
war was lost. One Jewish refugee child,
fleeing from Germany, was told she could bring one item with her on her journey
to safety. What should she choose from
her array of clothes, toys, books and treasures? In the end she brought her half-size violin. The only vestige of her old life. Today, children still come to Britain,
fleeing persecution in some of the world’s worst trouble spots. Like the children before them, they often
have nothing to connect them to their past and similarly they have to start
over to build a new life. Their experiences are terrifying and the sights they
have seen so horrific that it almost defies our imagination. We have to hope
that society will open its arms to them and give them some peace. Meantime, their
plight should not be forgotten in the maelstrom of news coverage. Their stories
need to be told, their violins heard.
|Basque children in Britain 1938|
|Given to an evacuee child and found in a second hand book in 2009|
This is my farewell blog for the History Girls. Thank you for inviting me and I shall follow the blog in the future. Good luck to all History Girls in their writing and everyday lives and to all the readers who follow the blogs daily, weekly or even just occasionally. Julie