From Playtime to Wartime: How Children Experienced WW1

Mother and child wearing gas masks, French countryside, 1918. (Bibliotheque nationale de France)

Mother and child wearing gas masks, French countryside, 1918. (Bibliotheque nationale de France)

It’s easy to forget that children all over the world are raised in periods of war. In our series on the archaeology of WW1, we’ve discussed the impact of war on men, women, landscapes and even animals. This time, we’re going to turn our attention to children, because although the tale of the WW2 evacuees is often told, by comparison, the experience of children who grew up during WW1 is rarely heard.

Warped reality

It seems so shocking to see such a small child sit so calmly on her mother’s lap as they both wear these alien-looking masks, but many children would have grown up with this as the norm. Gas attacks were a real threat, and masks were incorporated into daily life, which changed during WW1 right down to the very basics.

Food was rationed and luxuries like toys and sweets just weren’t available in the same capacity. Mothers had to go to work, and in many cases, older children had to join them in the workplace too.

This caused a huge set back in movements to enforce compulsory education for the under 14’s. In fact, H.A.L. Fisher, chairman of the board of education estimated that “between the start of the war and 1917, 600,000 children had been put to work”. This was not only physically and emotionally demanding, but meant that many older children missed out on years of education.

Dreaming of daddy

Childre WW1 dreaming of daddy.jpg

With mass conscription, thousands suddenly became army children. Civilian men prepared to leave home, having volunteered through choice, the weight of social pressures such as the White Feather Campaign or forced conscription.

Postcards like this may have been kept as mementos or even sent out to the front line to remind soldiers of what was waiting for them back home.

Welcome home

children ww1 blind

Postcard with the inscription “the child he will never see”

Men who managed to survive the war came back changed. They returned in their thousands with devastating injuries, missing limbs and suffering the effects of toxic gases, but even those without physical injury suffered mental scars.

Settling back into daily life was often a struggle, tormented by their experiences and unable to talk about it openly. Conditions such as shell shock were only just beginning to be understood by medics, but did any of that make sense to children who couldn’t understand why their fathers had come back so distant, troubled and resorting to alcohol? Children simply cannot comprehend the effects of trauma in a world that they have not experienced.

[Read more about shell shock – a blast from the past]

Some children were only infants when the war began and would have had little or no memory of their fathers. The arrival of a strange man into a house that had been female dominated until then must have been confusing, doubly so as these men struggled to adjust into a society where gender roles were changing.

Moral panic!

With over five million men sent off to fight abroad, their absence meant many young children grew up in a female dominated sphere, with little to no influence from young men.

Even teachers (typically male in this period) were replaced by women in wartime England. Gender roles and social habits were changing at lightning speed, which threw the media into a moral panic about ‘juvenile delinquency’ and the effects of an absence of disciplinarian father figures in a society where women now went to work and attended public houses (the horror!).

[See photos of women at work in WW1]

Some women remarried, and their children found it hard to accept their new father figure. Sometimes the new husband came with his own children, and no time for a new family. Children might be sent to live with relatives instead, causing long term emotional issues. Those who stayed might face a beating. Of course not every new man was a Disney style evil step-father and some children welcomed a new father openly.

One of the worst experiences must have been for those whose father had been shot for cowardice. 306 British men were sentenced to be shot at dawn, and with this came a nasty social stigma and the withdrawal of an army pension for the grieving family. Shame overshadowed the tragedy and children were encouraged to hide their feelings.

[Read more – What did WW1 really do for women?]

New horizons

Of course, many of these issues lead to reform. The Education Act of 1918 ended child labour. Girls growing into young ladies gained the right to vote for the first time, and could take up a wider range of employment. Working conditions improved, and day to day life was no longer dictated by black outs and ration books. Children could live like children again, and in many cases would be able to experience more than their fathers before them.

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Written by Sarah Ashbridge

Office monkey by day, forensic archaeologist by night, Sarah Ashbridge is a jack-of-all-trades and the master of one: the forensic identification the War Dead. She trained originally as an Egyptologist, but interests in the history of death and burial saw her make the step into archaeology, completing an MSc in Forensic Archaeology and Crime Scene Investigation at the University of Bradford. Armed with an ever-increasing library of books, a handful of illustration pens and a brand new trowel, Sarah writes our regular #WWWednesday column, working towards her PhD in Forensic Archaeology.

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