Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Stories of World War One
Reviewed by Jane M. Ekstam

French Children at Play During the War

Stories of World War One

Edited by Tony Bradmans
Published by Orchard Books, 2014

The twelve children's stories that feature in Stories of WW1 are written by well-known authors of novels, short stories, and screen plays. The editor provides a brief but informative introduction to the collection in which he points to the importance of his school literature classes in London, and more particularly, the poetry of Wilfred Owen. It was Owen's poems that made him determined to find out more about the war. In recent years, Bradman has written a number of books with his son, including Titanic: Death in the Water, which won a Young Quills Award from the Historical Association in 2012.

Stories of WW1 covers a wide range of subjects, including life in the trenches, the people left behind, and "what happened to them and their families because of their experiences" (10). The stories address the impact of the war on children in Britain, France, Belgium, and Germany. The soldiers featuring in the stories also come from the Empire, including India and Australia. In his introduction Bradman tells his reader that "[t]here is sadness and pain and suffering in these stories, but there is hope too, and I have a feeling that if Wilfred Owen himself could read them, he would approve" (10).

At the beginning of each story the author provides a short "editor's note" by way of background. These notes are extremely helpful in understanding the writer's perspective and his/her motivation for writing the story. I have selected two stories that I find particularly poignant. The first is Ian Beck's "Propping up the Line"; the second is Tim Bowler's "The men who wouldn't sleep".

Beck introduces his story with the following lines:

'Popping up the Line' is partly based on the experiences of my maternal grandfather, Alfred Gauntlett. He was gassed in the First World War - he survived the attack, but eventually died in middle age. His lungs were so badly damaged that he would only work in the summer. He said very little to any of his family about his experiences in France. When the call came to write something about the First World War, I realised that I had a chance to write about Alfred and, mostly through invention, I have done my best to honour his story and his sacrifice (41).

There are some frightening images in the story, but these are described in terms that children will understand and with images that are familiar. A case in point is when the narrator describes soldiers hanging from the barbed wire in No Man's Land:

Whole portions of them . . . were miraculously left behind like tea leaves caught in a strainer - bits of men hooked up and hanging there for all to see, like the display in an awful butcher's window; or if there were enough shreds and rags of uniform still attached to the lumps and limbs, then it was more like the washing flapping on a Monday morning at home (44).

When Alfred returns from the front after having been gassed, he recognizes that people want to know what it is like to be in the trenches. Alfred does what so many soldiers did in real life: he keeps quiet, "he couldn't tell them anything not now or ever. He just wanted indoors, calm and a cup of tea" (54). The burden of the truth inside him must be "kept cold like the joint of a half leg of lamb in the meat safe" (55). The story concludes with his daughter Nell remembering how she used to joke with her father–and the realization that the time has passed for this. The game is over forever.

German Children at Play During the War

Tim Bowler's "The men who wouldn't sleep" is dedicated to the generation who survived World War One as well as those who suffered traumas during World War Two. Bowler acknowledges that writing "The men who wouldn't sleep" was a poignant experience. It is a story of comradeship. Jimmy has been broken by the sound of shells and become silent. His fellow soldier, Bert, who has shrapnel in his leg, returns to England with Jimmy. Bert refuses to leave his mate but cannot make him talk. It falls to Robbie, the young son of one of the nurses as well as the narrator of the story, to comfort Jimmy. It is not until Robbie tells Jimmy that his mother has received a telegram in which Robbie's father is stated as 'missing' that Jimmy reacts to Robbie's presence. While he does not verbalize his thoughts and feelings, he reaches out for Robbie's hand, and holds it tightly. He continues to hold it until he dies. The story ends with the reminder that although the suffering is over for Jimmy, Bert's pain is now more intense than ever: there will be no sleep for him. The fate of Robbie's father remains unknown; the war, however, continues relentlessly. The final, poignant line reads: "As we [Robbie and his mother] walked away [from the hospital], I heard the thunder start again across the sea" (112). Its reverberations can—and do—reach far beyond the battleground itself.

For young children who know little about the war, Bradman includes a short "editor's note" in which he describes important features of the conflict, famous writers who have commemorated the war in their fiction and poetry, and several informative websites. While Stories of WW1 is a book for children, it can also be read by adults. Ideally, it should be read by adults to young children. Each story can act as a starting point for discussing the war; in this way, the story becomes a tribute to as well as a commemoration of the deeply human side of war.

Jane M. Ekstam, Østfold University College, Norway


  1. Writing WWI stories for kids - wow. That's a tough assignment.

  2. For most of today's children I suspect these stories would be about their great grandfathers and great grandmothers. Very few children would have ever actually known them.

  3. I read a little about world war II in books but hardly saw anything related to WWI in books. Good post on it, going to share it with others. Thank you for posting it

  4. Thanks for providing good information,Thanks for your sharing.


  5. This immediately brought to mind the film of Hitler's last inspection of youth outside his Berlin bunker. They are no longer Hitlerjugend but now Wehrmacht and so proud and tall to personally meet Der Fuhrer with smiles on their faces, before they go to meet their fate in battle...