In this and the next three issues of Books for Keeps, Geoff Fox introduces texts published for children during the Great War. His intention is to let the books speak for themselves – sharing their content rather than offering a critical appraisal of these little-known and often surprising works.
‘The brave boy closed his lips. In the hope of rousing fear in such a valiant heart, they bound him firmly to a tree, and turned their fire-arms upon him, threatening instant death if he did not reveal the facts they wished so much to know. But the silence remained unbroken. The land he loved was safe in his keeping. He died – faithful to the end.’ So the Huns execute a diminutive French Boy Scout, captured as he carried messages for the Army. Back on the Home Front, even the smallest children are doing their bit. ‘Yet many tiny boys did good work last year collecting chestnuts in the woods and gardens, because chestnuts were wanted by the Government to help in the making of munitions. When I tell you what a great, great number of chestnuts were thus gathered together, you will say: ‘Upon my word, that was worth doing!’ It amounted to 5000 tons.’
The first extract is the more typical of John Lea’s Brave Boys and Girls in Wartime (Blackie, 1918), but the second confirms that childhood rather than adolescence is his intended readership. In its format, the book is a conventional illustrated children’s book of the time, measuring 210mm by 260 mm, with nine colour images (three of them double page spreads) by H.M. Brock (1875-1960) and additional black and white line drawings by Brock and Gordon Browne (1858-1932) decorating its 71 pages. Both illustrators were prolific and highly-regarded, especially for their work in classic and children’s texts.
John Lea (1868-1952, aka John Lea Bricknell) wrote poems, novels and non-fiction for young readers. Between 1910 and 1930, he contributed more than 100 poems to The Boy’s Own Paper; in March, 1915, he encouraged B.O.P. readers to rally to the call to arms. The opening verses of ‘The Drum’ read:
The Drum – the Drum – one August day
Spoke in its own assertive way,
And Men stood hushed to hear anew
The solemn call of its low tattoo.
From ‘Nova Scotia’s misty shore’, the tattoo sounds across Canada by way of ‘the Laurelled Heights of Abraham,’ until its urgent beat is heard on the Pacific Coast among the ‘Battalions of Columbian pines’: and so across the oceans to Australasia, Hindustan and Suez, summoning a willing response from Britain’s colonial sons:
We hear the call of the Empire’s Drum!
Mother of Nations, see! – we come.
The handwritten inscription in my copy of Brave Boys and Girls in Wartime reads For Dear Dorothy Wishing you a very happy Xmas 1918 with love from Aunty Emily and Uncle Will. By the time she opened her present, Dorothy would have known that hostilities had ended in the previous month; but when Lea wrote his stories, things had still been very much in the balance.
Ten of the 28 stories, running to one, two or three pages each, feature heroines, some of whom suffer tragic deaths or disabling injuries. ‘Madeleine, the Coffee Girl’ is a French peasant whose father has gone to war, only for the war to come close to her own cottage. Every morning ‘throughout the bitter winter of 1915’, she brings hot coffee with ‘a happy smile’ to the grateful Tommies in the nearby trenches, despite the roar of the guns and the shuddering explosions. (Fig.2.)Twelve year old Marusia Charushina leaves her home in Viatka in north-east Russia and takes a train to Vilna, a thousand miles away, to help out Red Cross nurses at the Front. The ‘sensible guard …thought that kind intentions are quite as good as a railway ticket’ and keeps a kindly eye on her throughout her journey. Doris Walton, a fifteen year old London schoolgirl, is severely injured when a bomb falls on her crowded school playground. Two Canadian soldiers, themselves invalided from the Front, carry her to a cab. ‘I must kiss you both, because I see that you have both suffered,’ says Doris. It is almost her final act, for ‘though in the hospital, all that was possible was done for her, she gradually grew worse, and died at midnight.’
Several of the boys are on active service, often exaggerating their ages to enlist. One fifteen year old even borrows the kit left in his house by a deserter, adopts the latter’s identity and gives himself up to the authorities. He is thus ‘returned’ to the front line, where he acquits himself bravely for sixteen days (seemingly untrained) before he is discovered and sent home. John Travers Cornwell becomes the youngest, sadly posthumous, VC; the line drawing shows him on board the Chester, standing to attention beside his gun, dead sailors and spent shells around his feet. ‘A fragment from an exploded shell dealt him a terrible wound….Who would not grieve to learn that one so worthy never lived to wear the medal?’ wonders Lea. Gordon Browne draws a fifteen year old former office boy in the Dardanelles capturing two demoralised Turkish soldiers, hands in the air, at the point of his bayonet. He dies within months of joining up, but not before he has written home: ‘I shall be glad when it is all over, but until then I am going to do my bit and do it thoroughly.’
A Scout on board a torpedoed hospital ship ‘with great coolness … brought up loads and loads of passengers to the upper decks, where the life-boats awaited them. No selfish thought flurried his heart or shook his steady hand.’
Another ‘very small boy’, walks 65 miles to London and is disappointed to find the King is not at home at the Palace. Nothing daunted, he tries New Scotland Yard, where he runs into Lord Kitchener; ‘Master Reginald Smith’ is rewarded by a chat with ‘the great soldier’ who to the lad’s delight arranges ‘to send him to a school where boys are trained for joining the Army.
Brave Boys and Girls in Wartime might surprise readers familiar with stories of the Second World War, whose heroes invariably escaped injury or death and who were usually grown men such as Biggles (who fought in both wars) or the popular storypaper warriors, Rockfist Rogan and Fireworks Flynn of The Champion or Wilson of The Wizard. Lea and his illustrators chose not to deal with mud, rats or wounded animals, but they do portray blinded, heavily bandaged, and mortally wounded servicemen; while children at home met death or injury in burning and bombed houses. Lea’s voice remains avuncular and compassionate, patriotic rather than jingoistic, though readers a hundred years on might think his young heroes and heroines are romanticised in the telling.
‘An Apple for a Wounded Comrade’ catches the pervading spirit of the book. A soldier lies wounded in a trench, ‘crying out for something to quench his thirst’. Between the lines stands an apple tree, hung with ‘clusters of rich and juicy fruit’. ‘What a prize it would be to pluck one of these for the parched lips of the poor man who called so bitterly for something to drink! Would anyone dare to risk his life in such a task?’ A boy from the Connaught Rangers cries, ‘I will go! I will make a dash across open ground, and do my best to get back safely!’ (Dialogue was not Lea’s strongest suit.) Despite ‘the flying shots’ of enemy fire, the boy snatches an apple and, ‘stooping low as he ran’, races back towards his cheering friends, only to fall ‘dead to the ground, his brave heart pierced by more than one German bullet’. One of his comrades at once leaps from the trench ‘and, though wounded in turn, brought to the suffering man the apple for which the boy had paid with his life.’
Geoff Fox taught in schools and universities in the UK and abroad. He has written extensively about literature and drama, including reviewing regularly for Books for Keeps. With Kate Agnew, Geoff wrote Children at War (Continuum, 2001).