The children’s war is now everyone’s war. Anyone who was a child during the Second World War must now be in their 70s at least, the repository of the memory of those six long years of conflict, able to bear witness, shape perceptions for books, television and radio programmes, and be prepared to explain to a younger generation what it was like.
It is thus hardly surprising that there is a steady stream of accounts of children’s experiences of evacuation, blackout, rationing and air raids, all urgently collected from the last participants of the wartime generation. An exhibition, The Children’s War, opened at the Imperial War Museum in 2005 and proved such a crowd puller that it ran until this year.
However, Sean Longden suggests that these manifold accounts have been limited to portraying children as observers rather than participants in the war. This is something of an overstatement, but the intention of his interesting, comprehensive (though mistitled) book is to thread children through the entire chronology of the war.
He writes not just about ‘blitz kids’. This is an account that includes the involvement and participation children unremittingly had from the eve of the outbreak of war – when the order went out to “Get the children away” and some 1.9 million young people were evacuated from so-called ‘danger zones’ – to the postwar years when painful memories of war contaminated lives, sometimes for decades.
Longden recounts stories of children who were involved in civil defence; lied about their age to join the navy; were eagerly absorbed into the army; connived to be ‘flyboys’ in the RAF; trained as commandoes; worked on the land; saw action in the Atlantic; landed at Dieppe; went ashore on D-Day; and were confined in PoW camps or rounded-up as internees. He also recounts how children collected salvage, saved sixpences for Spitfires, and extended their scouting and guiding activities into undreamed of realms of hard work and sometimes horror.
War snatches away childhood. Toys were in short supply, holidays invariably a dim memory, fathers often away fighting, mothers exhausted by eking out rations, ‘making do and mending’.
Evacuation was a painful experience for many (though by no means all), education was disrupted, future prospects confounded. Although there was a certain anarchic freedom for many children there was also pervasive anxiety too.
And, above all, childhood was tragically brief. Schooling finished for most at 14 and war accelerated the transition to adulthood, with boys fighting alongside men, taking roles that demanded a maturity beyond their years – delivering telegrams announcing death in action, helping to dig bodies from bomb sites. Kids no longer.
Juliet Gardiner is the author of The Blitz: The British Under Attack (HarperPress, 2010). She recently appeared in the BBC One series Turn Back Time