Birmingham’s Hall of Memory features three carved Art Deco bas-relief plaques designed by sculptor William Bloye. Entitled ‘Call’, ‘Front Line’ and ‘Return’ these powerful pieces show three stages in the lives of the 150,000 men from Birmingham who enlisted in the First World War. Of those 12320 died and 35000 returned to their families disabled, and some of these later succumbed to their injuries.
The final plaque in the series pictured here shows a line of wounded men; limbless, blinded, shell-shocked or possibly gassed, returning home past the crosses representing those who did not return. Home is represented by the figure of woman with a frightened small child clinging to her skirts. And today on Remembrance Day I want to reflect on the experiences of the thousands of such children here in Birmingham, and by implication across the country.
It is estimated that nationally over half a million children were left fatherless as a result of the First World War which would imply that in Birmingham nearly 9000 children would also have lost a father. And three times that number would have been witnessed their father’s returning home with a range of physical or mental injuries. But even those children of those 100000 men who returned to Birmingham apparently unscathed would have experienced several years of their absence. Young children would have barely recognised these strangers suddenly appearing in their homes.
Over the last few months of this Birmingham Children of War Project we have uncovered much about schools and education, nursery provision, youth justice and children’s health. We have read minutes from various committees who were concerned with various aspects of children’s lives. And we have found newspaper and other reports of the contributions that children made to the war effort from entertaining wounded soldiers, to fundraising for chocolate and cigarettes to send to those on the front line; knitting caps and socks and even collecting conkers for use in munition production. We have found a very few examples of children’s own writing in the form of essays in school magazines or patriotic letters to local newspapers and even one or two reminiscences written late in life. And even a graphic photograph of a group of children made fatherless by the war taken during a parade after the war.
But what is lacking is anything touching on their emotions: grief, anger or bewilderment at the trauma they and their families were going through.
Maybe it does only surface in later life, and we should be seeking out more later memoirs that maybe touch on the inner lives of children during those years. Whatever the reasons for the paucity of children’s own writing in the archives there can be no doubt that a whole generation of children and young people suffered immense trauma, and they would have carried the scars into their adult lives. The ripples will have been felt down into the next generations.
And so today, as well as remembering the sacrifice that their fathers (and mothers) made we should perhaps give a thought to the truly innocent victims of all wars: children.