I bring you another non-fiction book and one I’ve particularly enjoyed (although perhaps ‘enjoy’ isn’t the best word):
Children at War 1914–1918: “It’s my war too!” by Vivien Newman
For most British readers, the phrase ‘children during the war’ conjures up images of the evacuees of the Second World War. Somehow, surprisingly, the children of the Great War have been largely and unjustifiably overlooked. However, this book takes readers to the heart of the Children’s War 1914-1918.
The age range covered, from birth to 17 years, as well as the richness of children’s own writings and the breadth of English, French and German primary and secondary sources, allows readers to experience wartime childhood and adolescence from multiple, multi-national standpoints. These include: British infants in the nursery; German children at school; French and Belgian youngsters living with the enemy in their occupied homelands; Australian girls and boys knitting socks for General Birdwood, (Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Imperial Force); Girl Guides working for MI5; youthful Ukrainian/Canadians wrongfully interned; German children held as Prisoners of War in Siberia; teenage deckhands on the Lusitania, not to mention the rebellious underage Cossack girl who served throughout the war on the Eastern Front, as well as the youngest living recipient of the VC. At times humorous, at others terrifying, this book totally alters perceptions of what it was like to be young in the First World War.
Readers will marvel at children’s courage, ingenuity, patriotism and pacifism and wholeheartedly agree with the child who stated, ‘What was done to us was wrong.’
About the author:
Viv has been interested in social history since primary school, when her teachers commented upon her “very many questions”.
Viv’s doctoral research on women’s poetry of the First World War uncovered a treasure trove of long-forgotten women’s poems. These widen our knowledge of women’s wartime lives, their concerns, and their contributions to the war effort and subsequent Victory.
Viv has taught women’s war poetry in both academic and non-academic settings and speak widely at history conferences (both national and international). She gives talks to a variety of audiences ranging from First World War devotees of organisations such as the Western Front Association as well as to Rotarians, Women’s Institutes and U3A.
As well as writing articles about women during the First Word War, Viv has numerous books either already or soon to be published: “We Also Served: The Forgotten Women of the First Word War” explores women’s uniformed and un-uniformed lives between 1914 and 1918. “The Tumult and the Tears” is an annotated anthology of Women’s Poetry of the First World War. “The Children’s War 1914-1919” explores British and Allied children’s wartime lives. Viv has also edited a unique wartime journal in “Nursing through Shot and Shell”.
I thank Rosie Croft from Pen & Sword for providing me a paperback ARC copy of this historical book that I freely chose to review.
I read a book about children during WWII from the same publisher a while back and enjoyed getting a completely different perspective on the subject (I’ve always been interested in what happened to civilians during the wars, and thankfully, the interest in the topic has resulted in more resources becoming available and more books being published in recent years). When I saw this book, I expected another excellent read. And I got it.
The author explains in her introduction that, at first, she had intended to write mostly about British children, as she was more familiar with the material and the research subject, but she came across some French books talking about the experience of French children, and once she started digging, she found other sources and people also shared with her the stories of some children that she felt she had to include. As a result, we might be reading about what British or French children were doing to try to help the war effort in one page, and then read what the German children were doing, in another. Although the messages about which side was right and which wrong were the complete opposites, the experience of war for all those children was pretty similar. It’s also true that some countries and territories were hit harder than others; there were children who never knew who would come to take over their town or village next and soon discovered that the colour of the uniform made little difference in the end.
The description of the book gives a good idea of some of the contents, and I’d find it difficult to choose my favourite chapter or anecdote. There are all kinds of stories: funny and amusing ones, inspiring ones, stories of bravery and courage well beyond the protagonists’ years, tragedies and disasters, terrifying experiences the children never forgot, tales of endurance, and many memorable images that will remain with me forever. I particularly enjoyed reading samples of children’s diaries and letters. Little Simone de Beauvoir was delightful (and you could already see the woman she’d become), and I soon became a fan of Piete, a young girl we see grow more insightful and mature as the years pass and whose compassion and anti-war feelings develop over time. She even writes a letter of condolence to the parents of the boy whose helmet her brother brought back home as a war souvenir. There were also moving accounts of the children’s war efforts from the home front, and I’d happily read a whole book about the story of the Girl Guides and how they got to work for MI5.
We see the children as victims of the war, directly (like in the sinking of the Lusitania), or indirectly (they were among the many victims of the explosion of a TNT factory in Silvertown), and also having to cope with lack of food, with unwelcome guests (having to house and share all they had with soldiers, both friends and enemies), or becoming internees in camps for immigrants from enemy nations (the story of the Internment Camps in Canada is particularly hard to read, as it has been kept under wraps and denied for many years. It highlights how easily things can change, and how those who had been encouraged to leave their homes and travel across the world with the promise of work and a warm welcome turned into enemies overnight, even those whose countries of origin were not fighting in the wrong side). Everybody can come under suspicion in dangerous times, and it’s difficult not to think of recent events while reading this text.
We have wonderful examples of the heroism of children in the home front, at work (in ships, in factories…), and also those who enlisted pretending to be older, sometimes much older than they were. There were boys, and also girls (mostly on the Eastern bloc, in Russian and Polish armies) fighting as well, and it’s impossible to read about all of them and not think about the children who still fight and die in wars and conflicts all over the world. We might feel reassured that some of the things the book narrates couldn’t happen nowadays, but unfortunately, many others could and still do.
The author includes pictures, documents, and images that help put names to faces and provide a background for some of the stories. There are also endnotes indicating the sources of the references or providing extra explanations, and a bibliography that contains books and websites, which will allow those intrigued by any of the events or individual stories to research them further.
This is a wonderful book, with heart-wrenching and inspiring moments in equal measure, and full of unforgettable characters. It’s fundamental to remember WWI, and its impact on everybody, particularly the children. We should never forget the price paid by both sides, and we must remember there is no such a thing as winning a war, only surviving it, and that applies to whole generations of people, to countries, and to the world at large. I recommend it to anybody interested in gaining a different perspective on WWI, to those researching the topic, to historians, and, in general, to anybody who wants to learn a bit more about that historical period and how it affected the youngest of the population.
Thanks to Rosie and the author for this book, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to stay safe, and to share, click and comment if you like. And keep reading and reviewing!