When the Children Came Home: Stories of Wartime Evacuees

Juliet Gardiner reflects on the vagaries of Second World War evacuation

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Reviewed by: Juliet Gardiner
Author: Julie Summers
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Price (RRP): £18.99

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Evacuation was the most widespread experience of the Second World War for most people alive today.

That is true whether they were one of the almost 1.5 million people – mainly children – evacuated under the official government scheme between 1 and 3 September 1939, or were among those who relocated to the country or overseas to stay with family or friends. It is no less true for those who fled later as the Blitz carpeted the country and the VI and V2 weapons wreaked death and destruction.

It also includes those in so-called ‘reception areas’ who took evacuees into their homes and schools, and children who were not evacuated but lived out the war in depopulated, devastated often school-less towns and cities.

Summers has added another book to what is now a substantial oeuvre about the experience of evacuation. When the Children Came Home is replete with moving tales of good as well as horrendously bad experiences, involving neglect and abuse.

While she revisits already heavily trodden ground, Summers is particularly strong on the conundrum endemic in evacuation, that while many children suffered traumas as a result of being separated from their families to live with strangers, others settled down in their new surroundings so happily that they were never able to fully re-establish life with their own families once the war was over.

And she shines an interesting light on a usually neglected aspect of evacuation: those children who were billeted not with families but housed in specially built hostels.

The title promises the children’s version of what Summers’s earlier book on fathers delivered – the experience of coming home from war. Yet by relying almost entirely on personal testimonies, she leaves questions that need a wider interrogative context unanswered.

The experience of evacuation is certainly not the “invisible war”, as Richard M Titmuss calls it in his official history. Yet despite the accretion of witness accounts, it still remains the ‘incomplete war’.

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Juliet Gardiner is the author of The Blitz: The British Under Attack (HarperPress, 2010)