Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2019-049
5 June 2019
Review by Lissa Paul, Brock University
British Children's Literature and the First World War: Representations since 1914
By David Budgen
New York: Bloomsbury, 2018. Pp. viii, 222. ISBN 978–1–4742–5685–8.
Descriptors: Volume 2019, 20th Century, World War I Print Version

There was something unsettling about writing this review on Remembrance Day 2018, the exact centenary of the signing of the armistice that ended the carnage of the First World War. David Budgen's British Children's Literature and the First World War[1] tracks the changing perceptions of the historical truths about that war. They range from patriotic calls to adventure in the literature from the war years, to the post-1945 focus on World War II's origins in the suppression of Germany at the end of World War I, and the late twentieth-century emphasis on the futility of war and the indelible scars of personal loss inflicted on all sides.


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A centenary provides an opportunity for reflection on and analysis of the long narrative arc of changing views. By writing from the vantage of children's literature and its relationship with a century of First World War stories for the young, Budgen (Univ. of Kent) has opened a particularly revealing perspective on war studies. Books aimed at a rising generation reflect a whole range of agendas: they may be propaganda, recruitment ads, entertainments, or educational tools, according to the political winds of their times. The author proceeds from the adventure stories meant to promote manliness in boys during the early stages of the war through the uneasy, perfunctory recording of battles and commanders in interwar school books, to the rethinking of war stories for children beginning in the late 1960s, when accounts of suffering and humanitarianism replaced earlier tales of courage and patriotism.

Budgen sets the stage by noting that Britain "had not been involved in a major conflict on mainland European soil since the Napoleonic wars" (11).[2] He then turns to his overarching thesis concerning the psychological battle "to sway the minds of children." Specifically, "the values of imperialism and heroic masculinity" (11) being inculcated in the early stages of the war embodied the imperialist ethos of the generation that had grown up in the 1890s and the early years of the twentieth century. This was a golden age of children's literature, especially in the adventure story genre. Books by George Alfred Henty (1832–1902), Percy Westerman (1876–1959), and others promoted a "muscular Christianity" that would now be called hypermasculinity. The creation of the Boy Scout Movement in 1908 and the publication of founder (Lt. Gen.) Robert Baden-Powell's handbook Scouting for Boys[3] aimed to give boys a real-world opportunity to enact their adventure fantasies. It was a be-careful-what-you-wish-for moment, in light of the butchery shortly to come in the Great War.

Budgen moves chronologically across the hundred years from 1914 to 2014, but includes thematic chapters on "Girls' Fiction," "School Fiction," and "The Home Front 1945–2014." Although he begins with the iconic trench warfare of the Western Front, he also discusses books set in the other theaters of the war. Salonika, East Africa, Egypt, and Palestine were, after all, exotic sites perfect for depicting the empire "as a British playground for those brought up on the ethos of muscular Christianity" (50).

Soldiers from Australia and Canada were "portrayed as some kind of free-range Briton" (44), their essentially British characters steeled by the harsh wilderness environments of their upbringing. Although boys' adventure stories dominated in a period when girls were typically relegated to staying home and knitting, Budgen discusses genre adventure stories for girls by established authors like Bessie Marchant (1862–1941) and Angela Brazil (1868–1947), in which girls played roles as nurses and munitions workers, and sometimes even foiled German spies.

A fascinating chapter on "School Textbooks since 1919" concerns the dichotomy between arid, factual accounts of the First World War studied in schools and the exciting fictional adventure stories that youngsters read at home. No one in the postwar years could deny that the war had been "an awfully big adventure,"[4] since "Britain had lost three quarters of a million men, and had been economically crippled by four years of war" (75). The generation of children learning history in school in the 1920s had firsthand experience of the effects of war. Even if their own fathers had not been killed or maimed, the war's consequences were painfully obvious in everything from memorial boards on school walls listing former students who had been killed, to grieving family members who had lost sons, to teachers who never fully recovered from their war experiences. The default response was to drain history texts of any emotional immediacy.

The books themselves were often dense, covering vast swathes of history. The writing style was frequently dry, and very formal; many included notes in the margins to draw attention to key points, thereby ensuring that readers consumed the author's interpretation. The First World War was almost always presented from a military and political perspective …. They usually began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and ended with either the armistice or the formation of the League of Nations. The structure and focus of these histories suggested a sense of hope springing from the four years of carnage; there was, in their view, a positive end to the First World War. The war was over, and could be filed alongside other great events of history. (98)

The period of the generically optimistic textbook version of World War I was short-lived. With the rise of Nazism and another war looming, the consequences of punishing Germany so harshly at the end of the Great War were becoming darkly manifest. Mid-twentieth-century history teachers turned to the war poetry of Robert Graves (1895–1985),[5] Wilfred Owen (1893–1918) and Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967).

As a historian, Budgen reads the children's books he cites not as a literary critic but as a scholar of the First World War. That said, he comments perceptively on the genre fiction of the early twentieth century and the more morally nuanced literary fiction that followed, with a sensible stress on points of social and cultural relevance. The rapid development of aerial warfare in World War I, for example, led to a new form of fiction for boys. Stories of flight moved from the realm of "science fiction tales reminiscent of Jules Verne" to narratives combining "the bravery of individuals with the excitement and novelty of technological advancement" (58).

On the literary side, Budgen also makes a compelling case for the effect on J.R.R. Tolkien of his experience as a signals officer during the Battle of the Somme. He identifies "similarities between the marshy graves of [The Two Towers] ... and some of the battlefields of the Western Front" (142). And in his discussion of Michael Morpurgo's Private Peaceful (2003), he observes that the novel "sparked a television debate over the nation's failure to pardon soldiers shot for desertion in the First World War" (116), and, at the same time, appreciates its author's delicate handling of narrative structure:

Beginning at five past ten, each chapter of Private Peaceful counts down to a specific moment in time, the importance of which is gradually revealed. As the novel progresses, it becomes apparent that the event the story is building towards is the execution of Charlie Peaceful. (136)

In tracking a century of children's literature about World War I, Budgen persuasively clarifies its reactions to changing values. As British society became more liberal, so did the stories. In fact, he writes, "the First World War novels revealed more about British society and its values than the actual experience of combat" (171). Memory, however, is a fickle thing. The solemn memorializing that filled the news cycles through early November 2018 stopped abruptly on the twelfth of that month, to be quickly replaced by cheerful celebratory anticipations of Thanksgiving, Black Friday shopping, and Christmas.

[1] Orig., diss. Univ. of Kent 2010.

[2] Cf. Margaret Macmillan, The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (NY: Random House, 2013) xxvii: Europeans "had grown used to peace; the century since the end of the Napoleonic Wars had been the most peaceful one Europe had known since the Roman Empire."

[3] London: Horace Cox, 1908.

[4] The original line—"To die will be an awfully big adventure"—appeared in J.M. Barrie's first stage production of Peter Pan in 1904. It is attributed to George Llewelyn Davies (1893–1915), the eldest of the five Llewelyn Davies boys with whom Barrie played some of the games that became Peter Pan. George was killed in Flanders in 1915.

[5] His autobiography, Goodbye to All That, appeared in 1929.

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