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Being Young In World War I: MMU Explores The Effect Of War On Children

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By Jacqueline Grima

The First World War, fought between 1914 and 1918, had a catastrophic  impact on family life all over the world. One of the deadliest conflicts in European history, the war resulted in millions of family members being separated from their loved ones and millions of children permanently separated from either one or both of their parents.

At Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) this week, guests of the Manchester Centre for Regional History (MCRH), looked at the impact the war had on children and young people. The event, entitled ‘Being Young in World War I: Effects, legacy and remembering’, was one of several taking place at MMU to mark Remembrance Day weekend.

MMU Professor in History, Melanie Tebbutt welcomed the audience to the event, explaining how the conference formed part of the ‘Voices of War and Peace’ project, coordinated by the University of Birmingham. The project is funded by the Arts and Heritage Research Council. Melanie said:

“Children are often the unseen casualties of war. It is important that we have conferences like this that draw attention to the experiences of children and young people.”

The first speaker of the day was Professor Maggie Andrews from the University of Worcester. Maggie’s presentation focussed on the representation of the First World War in contemporary children’s literature.

Since the 2014 centenary commemorations, children are now, more than ever, being encouraged to engage with stories of the war. As a result, there has been a recent rise in children’s fiction focussing on the war, the publishing industry appearing to recognise its current commercial value. However, as Maggie stressed: “There is a moral and ethical responsibility in teaching children about the war.”

Focussing in particular on two texts, Kate Saunders’ Five Children on the Western Front and Michael Morpurgo’s Listen to the Moon, Maggie went on to discuss how, often, “little thought is given to how the war is represented” and how “life-changing events are glossed over.” She also pointed out how children’s war fiction often focusses on the so-called adventures of animals during the war, demonstrating how “turning industrial-scale killing into something suitable for children is problematic.” She concluded by saying: “I’m not sure it’s really education if we look at war and don’t see it as traumatic. We smooth things over.”

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Dr Alison Ronan and Professor Maggie Andrews with Dr Fiona Cosson

After her presentation, Maggie told Humanity Hallows: “The problem is that I don’t think we are asking children the right questions about the war. Instead we are using familiar tropes that have now lost their power. Texts about the Home Front thus become mere symbols of the war instead of ways to get children critically engaged.”

The second speaker of the day was MMU researcher, Dr Alison Ronan, who talked about how the women’s movement campaigned to improve the rights of children during the war. Focussing in particular on campaigner, Margaret Ashton, Alison discussed how, in the absence of men, children were used as cheap labour. For example, a nine-year-old might be expected to work a 36 hour week and a thirteen-year-old a 43 hour week in addition to attending school. Care for younger children was also problematic with women expected to work in the munitions factories.

Alison said: “The pressing need for women to work did prompt the government to provide nursery provision but most women had to rely on friends and family.”

Following Alison, Dr Monty Soutar, from the Ministry of Culture and Heritage in New Zealand, talked to the audience about the contribution made by young Maoris to World War I. According to Monty, the enlistment age for Maoris during the war was 20 but, as many did not have birth certificates, often, boys as young as fourteen were able to sign up. This lead to a high casualty rate among the Maori population.

Asked why young Maoris were so eager to sign up, Monty said: “On one level, the answer is simple. Here was an opportunity to see the world and, like many others, they thought it would be over by Christmas.”

The next speaker was MMU lecturer, Dr Marcus Morris, who discussed the sense of enthusiasm that surrounded the outbreak of the war when “a patriotic fervour and war-fever gripped the nation.” However, as Marcus said, “voices of peace were raised just as loudly” with anti-war protests taking place all over the country.

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Dr Marcus Morris

A key reason for this opposition to the war was its effect on young people. Marcus added: “It would be the youngest generation that would suffer most from this death of civilisation. It was possible that there would not be a next generation to rebuild a shattered Britain.”

Afternoon presentations at the event included ‘World War One and Education’, ‘Family and Growing Up’ and ‘Cultures and Consequences of World War One’.

After the event, Dr Fiona Cosson of MCRH told Humanity Hallows: “This conference has brought together academics, researchers, archivists and local and community historians, all with an interest in the First World War. It is important not only in terms of challenging our understanding of World War I, its legacies and the experiences of young people, but, also, in recognising the work the universities involved are doing in their local communities.”

To find out more about other events hosted by the Manchester Centre for Regional History, visit their website.

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