Explaining World War 1 to young children – Can it be done? Should it be done?

    Published: 11 October 2018

    On the 10th November 2019, the world will commemorate the ceasefire of World War One.  This was the first truly global war, the aftermath of which is as significant as ever. A lost generation, a scarred landscape, a legacy of literature, art, politics and culture- all of these and more have shaped who we are today as a nation and a planet. This autumn, the world prepares once again to pay tribute to the sacrifice made by people now long departed from our lives. We will acknowledge a defining and truly horrific time in history and mark a hundred years since its end.  But how do we, as educators and parents, include younger children in this time of remembrance?

    In our guest blog (originally published in 2018 to coincide with the centenary of the ceasefire), author Hilary Robinson explains how she, and illustrator Martin Impey, found a way.

    There can be few greater writing challenges than producing stories about World War 1 for Key Stages 1 and 2.  The sheer barbarity of a brutal four-year battle that grew in intensity and devastation, combined with the painful and long lasting consequences at home, all led several publishers, historians and experts in the field to consider the subject too complex and difficult to deliver to young children.

    Yet the centenary commemorations, also lasting four years, meant that many children might have been excluded from engaging with a defining period of our time, a time which helps to contextualise their place, alongside ours, in society today.  So, my illustrator Martin Impey and I were faced with the task of finding a way to address that.

    With the support and advice of teachers, historians, parents and reviewers, we developed a series of books set before, during and just after the First World War. 

    It was a risk. We didn’t know how it would be received but all the books in the series have proved to be welcome resources for the teaching of English and History as well as providing pan-educational opportunities linked to the First World War.

    Where The Poppies Now Grow was the first of four picture books, all written in  rhyme and which, aimed essentially at Key Stages 1 and 2, have been appreciated by a much wider readership.  Each story marries carefully crafted text with realistic artwork, gently conveyed with subtle language and detailed watercolour. Three of the four books are written in cumulative verse, a comforting rhythmic form that serves to recap and rehash while underlining the cyclical notion of time.  The verse provides the ideal canvas for the introduction of both complex vocabulary and exceptional pieces of art, accurate in facts and absorbing in detail without the distraction of difficult concepts. 


    The Christmas Truce was published to mark the centenary of that extraordinary moment in history, during the Christmas of 1914, when for one night, peace found a place on No Man’s Land.  Many teachers have used this story as a resource to discuss the wider issue of peace and reconciliation and the fundamental power of words as a means towards conflict resolution.  The touching scenes in which the two characters in Where The Poppies Now Grow, Ben and Ray, shake hands in friendship with enemy soldiers, Karl and Lars, is a stark reminder of the common humanity that can flourish even in the most desperate of situations.  The story has also been re-enacted in school halls and on playing fields and we have been notified of a number of alternative productions to the traditional nativity!

    Flo Of The Somme pays tribute to the role of animals in war, acknowledging that, as the Hyde Park memorial says, “They had no choice”. The simple and loyal way in which the animals played their part in the First World War is fascinating and endearing to young readers.  The book includes ‘before and after’ maps of the Somme as we follow the journey of a dog accompanying stretcher-bearer Ray, from Where The Poppies Now Grow, on mercy missions.

    Peace Lily coverPeace Lily explores the theme of women and war. This year, the centenary of both the Armistice and women’s suffrage, provided the opportunity to honour the role of women in war with Peace Lily, which was published on International Women’s Day.  A childhood friend of Ray and Ben, Lily follows in their footsteps to nurse on the battlefields.  Throughout, as with the previous three books, the artwork provides realistic facts whilst allowing the text, unencumbered by essential detail, to flow. 

    'A Song For Will and the Lost Gardeners of Heligan'

    A story written through the means of letters, 'A Song For Will and the Lost Gardeners of Heligan' draws on facts as we know them from the estate in Cornwall that, at the turn of the century, was widely known for its superb botanical gardens and which, today, is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the UK.

    Aimed at an older readership than our picture books, the format effectively created a canvas by which I could vividly contrast landscapes - that of a quiet corner of England, with that of the brutal battlefields of Europe. The words are beautifully illustrated by the delicate paintbrush of Martin Impey.  Writing for children means I need to be mindful of the full horrors of war, but I also need to be truthful as well, and finding that balance is difficult. In all thirteen members of the Heligan outdoor staff accepted the call to arms; only four of them were to return.

    Song for WillThe central character, William Robins Guy, was chosen because his brother, Philip, was still alive in 1990 when the gardens were reclaimed after decades of neglect.  Philip provided valuable insight into Will’s character - a gentle man who loved nature, gardening and music.  Sadly Will died in April 1918. Another character, Fred Paynter, was chosen because he was one of the four who did return, and again, we came to know more about him and his life as the archives of Heligan show that his father and his brother were also at Heligan and remained there during the four year battle.  Fred represents continuity and hope.

    The story is a shapshot of Edwardian Britain at that time, a portrayal of a bygone age. The pervading theme however is one of peace - that war can never be the answer to conflict for the wide reaching effects are not just long lasting, but everlasting.

    Our future lies in the hands of our children - our readers - and 'A Song For Will and the Lost Gardeners of Heligan'  is therefore more than just a story - it serves as message of hope. Martin Impey, when interviewed by British Forces Broadcasting Sservices, said that his hope is that our readers will carry the forward the torch of remembrance that we have helped to light. My hope is, as guardians of the future, our readers will learn from the mistakes of the past and understand that words will be the ultimate weapon in the pursuit of a more peaceful world. 

    And let’s face it, no child is ever too young to learn that.

    Hilary Robinson, 2018

    Images by Martin Impey

    The books mentioned are all published by Strauss House Publishing and are available from all good booksellers, as well as direct from the publishers: www.strausshouseproductions.com/publishing

    The HFL Primary English Team have produced a World War One themed unit of work for Y5 and 6. It uses Where the Poppies Now Grow and John McCrae’s famous poem In Flander’s Fields and encourages children to create a poetry written outcome. The plans for this unit can be downloaded here.


    Hilary Robinson

    Hilary Robinson

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