Child’s Play: Children & war culture in France

French recruits of 1917 class, still in their civilian suits, in Paris, 7 January 1916 (© IWM (Q 78065).

by Marine Furet, based on an interview with Marie-Pascale Prévost Bault, Chief curator at the Historial de la Grande Guerre (Great War Museum) in Péronne

What did it mean to be a child in the First World War?  In war-ravaged France, children were among the first victims of a conflict that left many orphaned, impoverished and deprived.  In occupied areas, they often fell prey to the harsh realities of German military occupation.

A close look at the toys, books and posters of that time reveals that children on the French home front were not immune to war culture, and were both appropriated and directly targeted by propaganda during the conflict.  To understand the impact on children and their indoctrination during the conflict, I talked to Marie-Pascale Prévost Bault, chief curator of the Historial de la Grande Guerre in Péronne.  The Historial is both a museum and a prestigious research centre dedicated to understanding World War I and its impact in France

How were children portrayed in national propaganda? What was their place in war culture?

During the conflict, children were targeted by and became integrated into war culture.   The figure of the child was exploited and targeted by several institutions and industries, from cinematography to the state and the Army.

The cities were full of posters depicting children, although women were used more frequently in propaganda.  The rural world was largely overlooked in these representations.  For example, illustrator Francisque Poulbot (1879 – 1946) drew many scenes with children in urban settings, although he was also the first to draw a poster set in the countryside.

Children also featured in popular culture.  For example, Bout-de-Zan was the main protagonist in a series of short movies aimed at children, which portrayed a young hero who wishes to enlist and becomes a soldier.  In publishing, the Epinal Prints offered affordable and accessible colour illustrations of the Front, making them very accessible.  Magazines for children, including Les Trois Couleurs and L’Épatant, contained stories about patriotic heroes; however, they were rather targeted at young boys.  Postcards showed children thinking about their fathers, helping their mothers or playing at war.

How did children become involved in the war effort, and at what age?  How did the institutions contribute to mobilising children?

Journée de Paris cover, 1917

Children became involved in the war effort very early on, from the age of 6 onwards, as they started going to school and learning to read.  Gender roles influenced the nature of their involvement:  girls had to ease their mothers’ distress at being left alone at home and take on the role of surrogate mothers to their siblings.  As for boys, they were perceived as graines de poilus, or potential soldiers [poilus, meaning the hairy men, was an affectionate nickname given to soldiers in France).

State propaganda frequently reached out to children.  At the time of the campaigns for the National Loans*, children were encouraged to give their savings to the nation.  In 1918 the Minister of Education started a campaign with posters advocating the restriction of bread, sugar and other comestibles.  Children were invited to participate by drawing their own posters.  (*As the war lasted longer than expected, the French state launched four national loan campaigns targeted at French citizens in 1915, 1916, 1917 and 1918.)

Schools also played a key part in mobilisation through education, especially through war-themed exercises in writing, arithmetic and history.  According to their financial means, some schools also had gardens for children to tend.  Some schoolchildren even became ‘war godmothers’ or ‘war godfathers’ to soldiers, or would knit and send them scarves and other parcels.  Feelings of hatred and anti-German stereotyping were particularly important to cultivate when mobilising the children:  the enemy was generally depicted as a barbarian, a glutton or a brute.  For example, in La Guerre des Enfants, French historian Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau quotes this sentence from a pupil’s jotter:  ‘Always keep your hatred for the Germans’ (Ayez toujours la haine des Allemands).

What part did children’s industries play in mobilising them?  What objects and books were used to make children feel involved in the war?

The Bon Marché and the Samaritaine [two famous department stores in Paris] published gift catalogues and, as early as 1915, half of the toys alluded to the war.  Among them you would see strategy games, like the game of the goose turned into war games, or toys like leaden figurines, miniature cannons and armoured cars.  Girls had dolls like the Alsatian Hiéri and Gretel.

Military costumes became very popular, too.  Children would dress up as zouaves [light infantry corps], as sergeants… You could even find Allied armies’ uniforms.  However, these uniforms were very expensive, and less affluent mothers would find blue fabric [bleu horizon, the colour of the French uniform] to make costumes for their children.  As for girls, they would receive nurses’ costumes.  Children were plunged into the conflict, and thus made to feel heroic and mobilised, through re-enacting the war in their games.

In the publishing industry, several popular figures such as the Pieds Nickelés and Bécassine [the heroes of a famous series of comic books in France] were depicted in patriotic situations.  Later, some publishing houses like the Bon Marché Editions started a series of patriotic books portraying war as a very modern affair, involving advanced weaponry.

Were children aware of what was going on in the battlefields?  Is there evidence of their reaction to the conflict?

Children were more or less aware of the conflict depending on their age.  The soldiers’ sufferings were not discussed openly, but children were aware of the conflict through the deaths of family members – be it those of their father, their uncles or their cousins.  The war left 6 million orphans, many of whom became wards of the state, an official status created in 1917.

These children faced losses, deprivations, hunger, not to mention the dramatic situations faced by children living in the occupied area, such as deportations or fathers being taken as hostages by Germany soldiers.  The war had a deep psychic impact on these children.  Historian Stéphane Audoin Rouzeau studied one of them, Yves Congar, who lived in an area occupied by the Germany army.  His diaries reveal his patriotic feelings, triggered by his hatred of the Boches.

When considering children’s perception of the conflict, one must also bear in mind that soldiers were allowed no leave until 1915, as authorities did not expect the conflict to last.  There were many stories about delinquent children, especially among those living near the front – children smoking, talking back to their mothers or loitering with soldiers and adopting their language.  Some were kept out of school for months.  This was a far cry from the image of the child patriot.

At the time there was no real, critical analysis of the mobilisation of children during the conflict.  Of course people were aware of propaganda to a certain degree.  However, going against the spirit of mobilisation proved difficult.  The pacifist movement was silenced by the start of the conflict, and in the euphoric climate that followed victory, there was not much space for a critical reflection on the indoctrination of children.

Based on an interview edited and translated by Marine Furet.

About the Historial (EN/FR):

Presentation of the collection dedicated to children and toys (FR):

Works cited or mentioned:

Audoin-Rouzeau, Stéphane, La guerre des enfants: 1914-1918 (Paris : Armand Colin, 2004)

Congar, Yves, Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, and Dominique Congar, Journal de la Guerre 1914-1918 (Cerf, 1997)

Illustration: (public domain poster by Francisque Poulbot, hosted by the National Library of Portugal)