Childhood and the World Wars

The Imperial War Museum in London is pretty much my favorite museum in the world. But I’ve been there often enough over the past few years that last month I looked for new ways to enjoy familiar exhibits on the wars of the 20th century. Soon I found myself noticing how many artifacts were connected to the experience of a group that is rarely in the forefront of military (or any other) history: children.

So tonight I thought I’d share a brief photo essay, highlighting just a few of the ways that British, French, and German children experienced the two world wars and their aftermath.

Most of the artifacts came from the Second World War, but these two illustrate how the First required children to join in making sacrifices for their nations’ war efforts. The piggy bank was given to children to collect coins for war-related causes, while the poster imagines French school children bravely vowing to “do without” the treats they gaze at in a shop window.

Toys took on new meaning for the hundreds of thousands of English children evacuated from London and other cities, for fear of the bombing attacks that came in 1940-1941. Rural areas received 1.5 million children like Hazel James, whose father spent his down time in the military making her this Noah’s Ark set out of cigar boxes and army canvas. Others were dispatched even farther from the Luftwaffe, to other continents. One of the 200 children sailing to South Africa in August 1940 on the RMS Llanstephan Castle was a boy named John Sadler, who used the balsa wood of an aircraft kit to make a model of the vessel.

Children’s experiences also help us see the lingering effects of the Second World War on British society. This 1942 painting by Elsie Hewland depicts one of the many new nursery schools that allowed mothers to join the wartime work force. Then the Bayko company, whose building kits had been popular with children since the Great Depression, used the same principles to construct some of the prefabricated units that helped alleviate Britain’s post-WWII housing shortage.

Throughout a Europe reduced to ruins by the direct and indirect consequences of total war, children suffered homelessness, hunger, and other social problems. So I was especially interested to revisit a 1946 documentary I hadn’t seen since graduate school: A Defeated People, set in the zone of northwestern Germany occupied by the British. “We can’t afford to wash our hands of the Germans,” insisted narrator William Hartnell (who would go on to play the first Doctor Who in the 1960s), over images of children playing in the rubble of cities like Düsseldorf and Essen.

Given that my doctoral dissertation was on the attempted “re-education” of Germans living in the western occupation zones, I perked up at the film’s argument that “we cannot live next to a disease-ridden neighbor… including diseases of the mind.” In the second photo, we see a teacher and students in a newly reopened primary school in the British zone, where the military government tended to take a hands-off approach. While their Soviet, French, and (from 1947-1948) American allies worried that German education required reforms even more thoroughgoing than denazification, the pragmatic British simply wanted to reopen schools as quickly as possible (in part to provide food and shelter for at least part of the day).

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