Children at war

7th April 2000 at 01:00
The evacuation of British children during the Second World War remains a constantly engrossing story, however often it is told. Martin Parsons's Waiting to Go Home (DSM pound;7.99) consists of original letters and reminiscences showing emotions that range from total happiness to utter misery.

Children who settled in most easily to a country setting could find re-entry into their post-war urban families particularly difficult. Those who suffered at the hands of neglectful or, in some cases, plain mad hosts often felt personally scarred, however delighted they might have been to escape back home.

The 32 camp schools set up during the war get a special mention for the care shown to pupils by teachers, who worked as hard after lessons as they did during the day. Other evacuated teachers, far from home and billeted in conditions often less than ideal, frequently walked or pedalled vast distances to keep an eye on pupils sometimes living in dangerous isolation. Inevitably, cases of cruelty were occasionally overlooked. A statue to the wartime unknown teacher, anxiously herding children off trains or into air-raid shelters, is still as deserved as it is so ungratefully improbable.

Ken Regelous's To the Long Pond (The Larks Press pound;8.50) is the story of one evacuee who thoroughly enjoyed the transition from London's East End to King's Lynn in Norfolk. The centre of his life was the local pond, constantly fished by some men and a host of boys. The author traces this interest to the succession of countryside types he got to know during his years away from home. He is now an organic farmer, his commitment stemming from a youthful fascination with the ecology of te Long Pond and its surrounding waterways.

Mike Brown's A Child's War: growing up on the home front 1939-1945 (Sutton Publishing pound;10.99), reaches back to what the author describes as "fond memories" of those six dislocated years. This is an odd way of referring to a time when 8,000 British children were killed by bombing, with a similar number seriously wounded. But even the most anti-nostalgic reader of a certain age cannot eventually help being won over by this book, in particular by its many contemporary pictures. One shows a resigned-looking dog wearing a head covering securing wads of cotton wool under each ear as protection against loud bangs. The same leaflet warns that "few cats will tolerate anything of the kind", which seems something of an understatement.

Many children played a part in home defences. There were the Air Raid Precaution bike messengers, employed to contact rescue services when telephone lines were down. At the start of the war such messengers could be as young as nine - quite a responsibility when it came to riding through air-raids. The Boy Scouts alone lost 194 members on duty during raids.

The number of children under 14 guilty of offences in the first year of the war also rose by 41 per cent, with the figures for youths between 14 and 17 little better. Partly as a response, a programme of out-of-school activities was launched, with the government by the end of 1941 making it compulsory for all 16 to 18-year-olds to join some form of youth group. Sixty years later, the idea of providing all children with a regular and wide variety of after school activities is once again on the agenda.


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