How to Prepare Children for War

The current exhibition in the Cotsen gallery is a small but potent object lesson.  If we want to understand why so many young men volunteered to serve in the Great War, it is illuminating to look at the children’s books that glorified soldiering and demonized other nations from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries across Europe. Not all of them were written and illustrated by old military men (although one book in the show is)–four women author/artists are represented.

A surprising number of these picture books feature toy soldiers as the actors. Some come to life only when their owners fall asleep. Or like animals in fables, the figures stand-in for human beings, distancing the reader from the realities of war’s theater.   Native troops from Africa seemed to belong to another world dressed in their gorgeous, colorful uniforms.  Others performed completely fantastic feats of heroism.   Frequently the child was encouraged to see himself as the omniscient general with the power to move around the massed little bodies as he pleased.  Girls were not necessarily excluded from these fantasies, although they were more likely to assume the duties of men and their uniforms.  A completely naked female doll executed as a spy (male) or be converted to the side of peace after wounding an enemy soldier,

In the reader’s nook just outside the door to the curatorial offices, will be a copy of a recent exhibit catalogue on the subject of children’s books and war: Richard Cheek’s . Playing Soldier: The Books and Toys that Prepared Children for War 1871-1918.  Weighing in at six and a half pounds, Playing Soldier displays far more books, popular prints, board games, and paper toys from the collection than could be displayedin the Cotsen gallery cases.Marie Flatscher and Ludwig Morgenstern. Heil und Sieg!: Ein Bilderbuch. (Munich: J. B. Schreiber, 1916). Cotsen 94927. This illustration is featured on the back of the dustjacket of Playing Soldier. A different opening from this book is on display.

For anyone interested in how children’s book illustration served national destiny in the run-up to World War I, this is a must-see publication.  “Extravagantly illustrated” is no exaggeration: the majority of the double-page spreads feature four or five pictures, but eight or ten are not unusual.  It showcases four major Western European traditions–German, French, British, and American—which conveyed patriotic ideas in aesthetically distinct ways.  Every feature, from the palettes of the illustrations to the display types used on the covers contribute to recognizable national styles of book design.  The quantity and quality of the illustrations  for Playing Soldier makes it an invaluable  pictorial archive and anyone who would like to see more of the kind of books featured in “Steadfast  Toy Soldiers” should enjoy browsing in Cheek’s exhibition catalogue.

The illustration featured on the exhibition poster is by Job for Georges Montorgueil’s Jouons a l’histoire: la France mise en sceme avec les joujoux de deux petits francaisParis : Boivin & Cie, Éditeurs, [1933].  Cotsen10970.


Disabled Veterans of the Napoleonic Wars in Early 19th-Century Children’s Books

gillray_world carved

James Gillray, “The Plumb Pudding in Danger” (1805). The British Prime Minister William Pitt the younger and Napoleon carve up the world, represented as an enormous plum pudding, between them.

During the first two decades of the nineteenth century, the picture book came into its own in England.  This period of extraordinary fertility was dubbed “the dawn of levity” by F. J. Harvey Darton, even though it coincided with the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815).  The protracted war with the French cast its shadow over English children’s books nevertheless.  An overtly militaristic school book like John Evans’ New Geographical Grammar (1811), described preparations supposedly being made in French port towns for the invasion of England.  The Naval Heroes of Great Britain: or, Accounts of the Lives and Actions of the Distinguished Admirals and Commanders who have Contributed to Confer on Great Britain the Empire of the Ocean (1806) contained accounts of martial valor that were supposed to stir up the desire to serve one’s country.

Other children’s books bear out the truth of the Duke of Wellington’s sorrowful observation that the only thing as sad as a battle lost is a battle won.  I can’t remember when I began to notice pictures of disabled veterans in Regency children’s books.  After the Battle of Waterloo, the sight of an old soldier with a cork or wooden leg must have been common in England.  Only  an high-born officer like Henry Paget, second earl of Uxbridge could afford a sophisticated prosthetic device to replace a limb shattered on the battlefield.

Some disabled veterans scraped together a living performing on the streets of London.   Billy Waters, an American-born freed slave, who fought in the British forces during the American War of Independence, became something of a local celebrity.  This is one of three pictures of Billy Waters I have found in Cotsen–the other two are in The Cries of London Drawn from Life (1823) and a book of London cries lacking a title page published ca.1821 by J. Bysh.


Hodgson’s The Cries of London (London: Hodgson & Co., ca. 1824).

Pictures of amputees may be more common in children’s books issued by the Quaker firm of the Dartons and they may be an indication of  pacifist tendencies.  This one from My Real Friend is unusual for showing quite graphically the daily accidental humiliations to which an amputee had to endure.  The passage the picture accompanies follows.


The title vignette for My Real Friend: or Incidents in Life, Founded on Truth. 2nd ed. corrected (London: W. Darton, 1812). The old soldier’s peg leg has gotten caught in the style.



Perhaps the most unusual sighting of a disabled veteran I’ve found so far is the frontispiece by R. Stennett for Parlour Amusements; or A New Book of Games and Forfeits (ca. 1820).  It shows a group of children playing the game of “Old Soldier” which is described inside.   One person is supposed to impersonate the impoverished veteran and notice how the boy has improvised a wooden leg from a pair of bellows.   The verse rules are followed with a model dialog between imaginary players to show how the process of questions and answers ought to play out.  4907frontis






The game of “Old Soldier,” which also goes by the name of “Here Comes an Old Soldier from Botany Bay,” was played for almost a century in the English-speaking world.  Halliwell-Phillipps included it in Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales (1849) under the title “The Poor Soldier.”   The second edition of Cassell’s Book of In-door Amusements, Card Games, and Fireside Fun described it as old in 1882, but didn’t speculate as to its probable age.  The 1901 volume of the Pennsylvania School Journal recommended “The Game of the Poor, Old Soldier” as an amusing one for small children in 1901, as did Grace Lee Davidson’s 1916 Games and Parties for Children.

This appearance in Parlour Amusements seems to be the earliest recorded and perhaps it is a relic of the Napoleonic Wars. The larger question is to consider what exactly such a game tells us about attitudes towards the disabled veteran during the nineteenth century. Here he seems to be treated simply as a character type that offers a good opportunity for dress up, rather than as a brave soul whose broken body  deserves respect as a symbol of patriotic service to his country.   Whatever its  meaning, the frontispiece of Parlour Amusements, along with the other illustrations shown here, offers a surprising glimpse into the impact of war on civilians.