Following on from my previous post about the Being Young During WW1 conference I attended in November 2015, I’ve another insight to pay forward.
Carolyn Kay shared her brilliant research into what young children thought about the war, through the medium of German children’s drawings. It was surprisingly insightful!
Art had only relatively recently been added to the German curriculum when the war broke out and teachers, Kay explained, encouraged young children represent in drawings what they thought the war was like.
Children’s voices are ghosts in most archives, echoing quietly and rarely through the halls of other people’s voices. Kay admitted that finding these drawings was one part searching and a mountain of luck. A museum in Germany just happened to find a trunk full of these drawings in the attic one day when she was conducting research nearby (true story!).
This way, researchers can have some understanding of what children thought of the war, not just what they were told about it in school and the media. In fact, Kay argued, this is a way to get a better understanding about what attitudes and information they were being taught.
What was prevalent in most was the violence and victory of the German sides (always advancing from the left fighting off troupes coming in from the right which was interesting). Children weren’t skimping on the blood red crayon nor were they doubtful of their waxy German soldiers being much bigger than the British or killing more soldiers. The gender of the child seemed to make no difference to the level of violence at all, although some female students did insert nurses and dogs into the fray.
There is no evidence that they understood the actuality of war, Kay explained. There was no gas or machine guns. The only time a trench was drawn, it had soldiers playing cards at a table, one man playing a piano to pass the time and framed artwork on the walls. Battle was more about riding in on horseback like medieval knights ready for the adventure of this necessary war.
She theorised that by asking children to draw what they thought of war, they linked children’s imagination to war violence which leads to war enthusiasm in childhood.
The research was fascinating and the talk and discussion had us all transfixed.
The archival value of these drawings are immense. Not just because of what they depict (art displaying war is a pretty famous business), but because of who is depicting it.
Children’s voices in war and in history in general are usually just whispers so these vivid depictions of a child’s inner monologue, thoughts and feelings are archival and historical gold. I grant that they are not a conventional archival record but does history really only matter when you’re old enough to minute it?