Children’s Voices

It has become widely accepted that it is possible to help children overcome some of the trauma of war by helping them to write or draw about their experiences. During the First World War, verbal culture for adults was directed largely in the opposite direction, in finding ways to avoid talking about experiences; the treatments offered to shell-shock victims at Craiglockhart Hospital were very much swimming against the tide of ‘cure through suppression’. Just as the common experience of shell-shock symptoms was to exert control over them by ignoring them, so war slang is full of expressions used to avoid saying ‘kill’, ‘be wounded’ or ‘die’. Soldiers dreaded two direct questions: ‘what is it like?’ and ‘how many Germans have you killed?’, both of which gave little opportunity for evasion and replacement. Paul Fussell proposed famously that the war’s great contribution to English expression was irony, but a similar case could be made for the use of verbal avoidance strategies.


In the week leading up to a panel talk at the Museum of the Mind, featuring presentations by Christine Hallett, Jane Potter and Julian Walker, ‘He never Spoke About It’, the BBC series ‘Blitz: The Bombs That Changed Britain’ aired its second programme, on two bombs that fell in Hull in May 1941 (thoroughly recommended). Children were killed, and their deaths known and remembered by their siblings; but for one woman born after the war, there was no mention of loss to carry through life, no observance after the war of the death of three children in the bombed home that was demolished, rebuilt and reoccupied by the family. Another bombed home housed the family of Dockmaster Captain Albert Eastwood, who had survived the First World War, and who, when interviewed by a local paper about his experiences in the First World War, which included being torpedoed in the North Sea, said ‘My motto is not to talk’.


A year after the air raids in Hull children in five schools in the city were asked to write about their experiences of the bombings; James Greenhalgh, writing about the essays produced at Springburn Street School, points out ( ) that ‘Although no indication is given in the text, it is almost certain that the essays were produced as part of the operational research project known as ‘The Hull and Birmingham Survey’ for the wartime government.’ The essays pick out details, often seeming gory to later and adult minds: ‘there in front of me was a girl whose legs were severed from her body’; ‘[the plane] crashed about two miles away, where I saw after the burned bodies of German airmen, and also a black burned hand of one man, who had a gold ring on’; ‘… with his chest blown …’  The children’s resilience stands out: Irene Docherty, aged 11, felt nervous when the air raids first started but wrote that she ‘soon got used to it’.


This kind of reportage of the destroyed body takes us back to soldiers’ writing of the First World War, of images that could not be suppressed or forgotten, despite the prevailing mores. It is not dissimilar to the details picked out by children a generation earlier, asked to write about the Zeppelin raids in 1915: ‘people say that lumps of flesh were found sticking to the walls and posts’; ‘in Leather Lane there were a wife and two children killed of a policeman and he has gone silly’; ‘the bomb did not go off, so I went to get it, but burned my fingers. A copper came running round the corner and he took it’; ‘a picture over mother’s bed fell on her head, and on the baby. The baby went unconscious, and my mother shook her, and then she was alright’; and ‘people were running about like mad bulls and the windows were falling out like rain’. One writer combines awkwardly formal statements such as ‘lives are to be and can be saved’ with both reflected propaganda – ‘If that raid does not touch the hearts of our young men I do not know what will’ – and a note on his brother’s attempt to loot two bibles from a bombed house (‘they would have been good relics but a policeman took them away from him’). Children’s writing in the essays of both periods is inconsistent in style and content, as one would expect, moving swiftly between the use of well-used phrases and startlingly direct reporting of primary observations. At times it creates an unintentional humour  found often in children’s writing: ‘My mother rushed up into my room and carried me bodily down into the kitchen, where I was among friends. I said, “Why all this excitement?” They said, “The Zeppelins have come,” and I said, “Good gracious! You don’t say so.” Or ‘I was coming out of a cinema with my uncle and I noticed people were rushing to and fro in the streets. I went up to a policeman and said to him, “What does all this mean?” He replied gravely, “The Zeppelins have come.” “What?” I said, “Do you mean to tell me that those terrible monsters have come at last?” And he replied, briefly, “They have.”’


It was C W Kimmins, the Chief Inspector of the Education Department of the London County Council, who set up this exercise asking children attending five London schools in areas that had experienced air raids in September and October 1915, to ‘write as much as they could about the war in fifteen minutes’. The results from the children, 96% of whom had experienced one or both of the raids, suggested that girls of ten were more ‘bellicose’, those of eleven were more depressed, and that they resumed ‘normal interests’ at the age of twelve; boys became more ‘warlike’ at the age of eleven, ‘and though a period of depression follows upon this, it is much less marked than in the case of girls’. An analysis of 945 of the essays written after the Zeppelin raids, given by Kimmins in an address to the Child Study Society, reported in The Times 10 December 1915, indicated a wide lack of fear during the raids among children under ten (‘at nine the boys thoroughly enjoyed the raid, spending as much time as possible in the streets’), an excitement with the sound of guns and bombs, a sense of antagonism towards the raiders, but even from ‘girls of 13 … a general verdict that the raids would do good because they would show the people what war really was’, a remarkably mature, possibly cynical, but politically advanced attitude. As Susan Grayzel remarks, ‘the words of children highlighted the ability of these quintessential civilians to reject the panic-stricken terror that presaged the full-blown collapse of morale that the air raid was meant to unleash’. But was this what were the essays were for? Often our fascination with the writing and the selected details in this body of texts leads us to overlook this question. What was picked up in The Times was girls’ readiness to protect, and the often uncomplimentary portrayals of men, including fathers, frequently shown as cowardly or badly in need of a drink: one child writes ‘A man came into the publichouse and said, “Give me half a pint. If I am going to die I will die drunk.”’ If Kimmins had any initial purpose or analytical observations, The Times was less interested in these than in the ‘human story’, essentially, the list of anecdotes that the material provided.


Kimmins was clearly drawn by a respect for children’s minds – his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography refers to ‘his “retiring” and “happy go lucky” manner—he researched the therapeutic benefits of child laughter’; he later wrote a book on children’s dreams, which makes several references to how war experiences were reflected in dreaming, and he seems to have been a genuine listener to children – again, during the war he asked 6,700 children to write about their favourite films. Kimmins’ methodology was governed by care and interest, but the children who were asked to write, both in the First World War and in the Hull Blitz, seemed generally to be less distressed than stimulated by what they saw. There is no sense of the exercise being affected by the early ideas of trauma treatment through verbal expression that W H Rivers proposed from 1917 as a treatment for shell-shock – the ‘talking cure’ that was used for the most well-known shell-shock victims.


If it is unlikely that the purpose of the First World War essays was primarily therapeutic, we know that the Second World War essays were directed as a way of finding out the level of morale, a pragmatic kind of ‘Mass Observation’ exercise. The essays were effectively commissioned by Solly Zuckerman, a government scientist investigating the effects of blast, as part of a survey that also included 900 adults in Hull, for the purpose of assessing the effect on civilians of a sustained bombing campaign. The resulting document, ‘Hull. Effects Of Air Raids On Mental Stability. 1941’ proposed that morale was not affected by the level of bombing suffered in Hull, a view that was used to support the case for a much higher level of retaliatory civilian bombing, eventually directed at the people of Cologne, Hamburg and Dresden; Zuckerman himself supported the view that bombing of conurbations was wasteful compared to the bombing of industry, defences and communications. It would be good to know if there was an assessment of the value differentials given to the views of children against adults in this survey, and what the team hoped to learn from children. From the examples given it becomes apparent that the details that children verbalise in conditions of war may be very different from what adults verbalise; experience teaches us what to say when and where, and as adults we censor our thoughts and words in order to ‘carry on’. We do not know how children talked about the experience of air raids in the First World War, but it seems unlikely that they did not discuss, amongst themselves, if not with adults, the details of what they had seen: a kind of group therapy through expression perhaps, that became socially permissible to adults only long after 1945.









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