Children’s experiences and propaganda

Curator Ian Cooke discusses the ways in which propaganda influenced children’s perceptions of World War One, encouraging them to develop particular values and to contribute to the war effort.
Children were affected by the First World War in ways previously unexperienced. For the first time, war impacted on whole populations, as the requirements of mechanised warfare meant that entire economies had to change to support munitions production as well as feeding and supplying huge armies. Technological innovations brought the threat of bombing from the air to cities far outside the zones of conflict, while naval blockades of shipping meant that millions across Europe experienced starvation and other extreme shortages.

Childhood experience of the war reflected these radical changes. Children were vulnerable to the effects of shortages caused by blockades and the need to redirect resources to the war effort. They experienced the loss of parents and other adults in their families as fathers and uncles joined the armed forces and mothers and aunts started working in factories. At the same time, the experiences of children across Europe generally had been changing rapidly from the mid-19th century, as a result of reforms in education and progress in maternal and infant care. By the early years of the 20th century, more children received some form of school provision up to their early teens than ever before.

Saint Sava is blessing Serbian children

Serbian children praying in front of a statue of Saint Sava in an orphanage in Nice.

Photograph of refugee children at a Serbian-American orphanage in Nice, France. The children are praying in front of a statue of Saint Sava, believed to be protector of the Serbian people, schools and the state. 

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Schoolwork created by children in wartime

In the minds of many Europeans of this time, education meant learning correct moral behaviour just as much as learning to read and write. Already before 1914, school had become an important influence on children’s values, sometimes even more so than parents. Across Europe, schools promoted patriotic values. This development became even more marked from the start of the conflict, as schools and teachers came under pressure to devote their entire teaching to support of the war effort.

Children and the War - a book for young people

Childhood and the war

A book of patriotic readings addressed to school children, published in 1917 in Italy.

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Typical lessons asked children to write and draw about the war. These two examples were produced by children from a secondary school in Styria, Austria, and reflect the way that children were taught about war.

Done by the enemy! - child's drawing

Childhood's drawing "Done by the enemy!"

'Durch Feindeshand!' ('Done by the Hand of the Enemy!), a detailed drawing by a child called Hubert, probably 13 years old, showing the destruction of a village.

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Copyright: © Öesterreichische Nationalbibliothek

This drawing, by a 13-year-old boy is titled ‘Durch Feindeshand!’ (‘done by the hand of the enemy!’). It reflects fears about the destruction of civilian property and lives, but also clearly attributes responsibility to ‘the enemy’. Much propaganda on all sides of the war focused on the atrocities caused by enemy troops against innocent civilian populations. The peoples of enemy countries were portrayed as barbarians, who caused such outrages because amorality was an inherent part of their national character. This type of propaganda was not just restricted to children, and formed part of the wider environment within which the young lived. In this picture, ‘the enemy’ has become completely dehumanised, replaced by a field gun.

School essay written by a student about a fictitious attack on London

‘How I made a nightly attack on London with my Zeppelin’: story written and illustrated by a schoolboy, in which he imagines bombing London and returning to cheering crowds.

‘How I made a nightly attack on London with my Zeppelin’: story written and illustrated by an Austrian schoolboy, in which he imagines bombing London and returning to cheering crowds.

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This picture, by a student at the same school, accompanies an essay describing a fictional Zeppelin attack on London. Both the essay and the picture show a fascination with the new technology of warfare, which was a popular topic for children. There is little or no concern for the fate of those being bombed, and the essay describes the Zeppelin crew receiving a hero’s welcome on return to their quarters in Antwerp. In contrast to this fictional essay, there are many accounts of real airship raids over London, written by local children. The accounts by the boys of Princeton Street Elementary School, aged between 5 and 14, often show excitement as well as fear at the sight of the Zeppelins.

Impressions of the airship raids over London, as recorded by boys in London

Impressions of the airship raids over London on 8 September and 13 October 1915, as recorded the next day by boys of Princeton Street, Elementary School, Holborn

A schoolchild's account of the German airship raids on London, 8th September and 13th October 1915.

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The copyright status is unknown. Please contact copyright@bl.uk  with any information you have regarding this item.

Copyright: © The copyright status of Add MS 39257-39258 IMPRESSIONS of the airship raids over London by various persons is unknown. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item.

Children’s humour and cruelty in propaganda

Cruelty towards the enemy was encouraged by propaganda directed at children as well as adults. The use of cruelty in children’s humour was prevalent before the war, for example in the popular book Struwelpeter. This parody of morality tales for children consisted of rhymes and grisly images that told the gruesome fate of children who didn’t behave properly. Originally published in the mid-19th century, it remained popular through Europe, and was adapted for propaganda purposes in both world wars.

German children's book 'The Wartime Shockheaded Peter'

Der Kriegs-Struwwelpeter [The War Shockheaded Peter]

Detail from The Wartime Shockheaded Peter, an adaptation of the well-known tales for children, Struwelpeter

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The copyright status is unknown. Please contact copyright@bl.uk  with any information you have regarding this item.

In this version of the book, the enemies of Germany are portrayed as the errant children in the verses. The enemies of Germany are responsible for causing the war, requiring ‘Germania’ to intervene to restore order.

The use of cruelty was particularly heightened in commercial publications, such as the German children’s book Hurray! A picture book of war. The book tells the story of two boys, the German ‘Willi’ and Austrian ‘Franzl’, as they learn about the different countries fighting in the war, and take part in attacks on enemies. The countries are divided into ‘good’ or ‘evil’ depending on which side they are on.

Hurray! A war picture-book for children

Hurray! A war picture-book

Detail from German children's book Hurray! A picture book of war (1915).

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Hurra! is also typical for its depiction of children in uniform. The use of uniforms, armed forces’ for boys and nurses’ for girls, contributed to the expectation that children would grow up to defend their country. More immediately, it increased the pressure on children to be patriotic and active supporters of the war.

Lady, hurry up!

Lady, hurry up!

'Lady, hurry up!', a postcard showing two children imitating a soldier and a Red Cross nurse.

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Copyright: © Istituto Centrale per il Catalogo Unico

Propaganda and children’s roles

Children were expected to contribute to the war in a number of ways, including growing vegetables in family allotments, and collecting scrap materials for re-use. They helped to make necessary equipment such as sandbags, and girls were encouraged to knit clothes for soldiers. War savings campaigns in particular made an effort to recruit children. They were required to contribute their own money, and to encourage their adult relations to do likewise. Schools helped coordinate fundraising activities such as concerts.

As children grew older, their roles became more militarised. The Scouting movement was a significant factor, emphasising military preparedness and practical support for police and armed forces. Older children carried out jobs such as carrying messages between army barracks or government departments, and worked in soup kitchens for soldiers. The propaganda aimed at earlier years prepared children for more active roles.

Children imitating soldiers

Child soldiers in a redeemed country

Photograph showing children imitating soldiers by carrying improvised swords and shields and lining up as if for a military drill.

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Propaganda had one further influence on the activities of children during the First World War – looking out for spies and saboteurs. Children’s stories exaggerated the threat of enemy agents, but also focused on the responsibility to be vigilant against ‘slackers’. Children and adults not demonstrative enough in their patriotism were targets for social pressure and accusations of treachery. The parent unable to answer the question, ‘what did you do during the war?’, risked more than private shame.

Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?

Poster commissioned by The British Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, and designed by Savile Lumley. It was published in 1915, by which time the war was already being referred to as ‘The Great War’.

Poster commissioned by The British Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, and designed by Savile Lumley. It was published in 1915, by which time the war was already being referred to as ‘The Great War’.

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  • Ian Cooke
  • Ian Cooke is Lead Curator for International and Political Studies at the British Library. He has worked in academic and research libraries for 17 years, and is on the editorial team for the journal African Research and Documentation. In 2013, he co-curated the British Library exhibition Propaganda Power and Persuasion.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.

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Image from the Propaganda exhibition book

Propaganda Power and Persuasion

Takes a close look at the range of propaganda used by different states – and their opponents.

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Daddy, what did you do in the war mounted print

From a British World War I recruitment campaign.

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