By Laura King, Project Principal Investigator, School of History, University of Leeds
Historians have described the Second World War as a ‘total war’ – as the economy was redirected towards the war effort and because almost everyone was directly affected by the war in one way or another. Men were conscripted into military service or could be held back in reserved occupations crucial to the war effort, whilst those too old or young to serve could join the Home Guard (or ‘Dad’s Army’). Women worked in a whole range of occupations – from 1941 they too were conscripted by the government, into war work in farming or industry, or into women’s military service organisations such as the WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service) and the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force). And the stories and images of children evacuated out of the big cities from September 1939 into apparently safer rural areas dominate our memory of this conflict.
In explaining the reasons for continuing to fight, and trying to persuade British people about his vision for the country, Winston Churchill spoke about the future generation and their protection. He painted a picture of future generations who were fair and just. Churchill’s use of children might not have been quite so explicitly ideological and politically motivated as the efforts of Marshal Pétain in Vichy France at the same time, but nonetheless, the same kinds of thinking about children informed the way Churchill spoke about the war. In January 1941, outlining his war aims at an apparently impromptu speech in Glasgow, the Prime Minister concluded by describing the faith of the British people in the rightness of their struggle to help liberate countries occupied by enemy forces. This faith, he added, would
carry us forward to a time when those countries which I have mentioned, who are now subjugated and trampled down, will bless the British name, and we shall be able to hand on to those in this island who come after us, to our children and grandchildren, a record of duty done which will not have been surpassed in all the rugged annals of our island home. (Daily Mail, 18 January 1941)
Some of this way of outlining the future was typical of the grandiose rhetoric of politicians like Churchill. But within these bold statements about passing on not only a safe and peaceful country, but also a history of fighting for justice, to future generations lies a much deeper relationship between children and ideas of Britishness and British values. During war, the connection between the actions of foreign governments and people at home becomes much more closely connected, and politicians, from a range of political backgrounds, used children to symbolise this and to attempt to mobilise the efforts of the British people in the war effort.
In a speech to the Senate and Commons in Canada at the end of 1941, described by the Daily Mail as ‘one of the most moving and magnificent speeches of his career’, Churchill ‘lashed at the Men of Vichy with the deep contempt of which he is supreme master’ and condemned the actions of the German, Italian and Japanese governments. He connected the actions of these governments with British people back home through the symbolic potential of children:
This is no time, according to my sense of proportion, to speak of the hopes of the future or of the brighter world. We have to win that world for our children. We have to win it by our sacrifices. We have not won it yet. The crisis is upon us. The power of the enemy is immense. We cannot for a moment afford to relax, but must drive forward with unrelenting zeal. In this strange, terrible world war, there is a place for everyone, man and woman, old and young, the hale and halt – service in a thousand forms is open. (Daily Mail, 31 December 1941)
Children, as an innocent and vulnerable future generation, provide a way for politicians to connect the military and political actions of their government and the nation as a whole to the people of that nation. In directly linking the fight against foreign enemies to the children at home, Churchill underlined the service of British people in the war effort as crucial and sacrifice as necessary.
The language of home and family has dominated descriptions and metaphors about Britain and Britishness – think of the home front, the Home Guard, and the gendering of the nation as a ‘motherland’ or simply ‘she’. Children figure strongly within this, and using the family as a metaphor for a national struggle to protect its children made everyone responsible for that fight. Churchill’s words reminded citizens that it was not just delivering a peaceful future to Britain’s children that was important, but the knowledge that everyone had done their duty to achieve this too.