Do we need another book on the evacuation of children in Britain during the Second World War? John Welshman asks this question of himself in the opening of this compelling narrative account of the lives of these children during and after the war. By considering this basic "why" question at the beginning, he sets the tone for an account that does not skimp on the detail of the "big history" made by government and other bodies, but also provides linked, narrative examples of the everyday experiences of the children and their families as they struggled to deal with the deprivations and uncertainties of war.
The book begins with a straightforward account of the details of the preparation for and execution of the evacuation scheme. Operation Pied Piper was a marvel of logistics that moved millions of schoolchildren and others across the country to a very exacting timetable. But the preparation of reception areas suitable for the mental welfare of separated children was very patchy and initially left to chance. Viewed from the perspective of a modern world well supplied with psychological advice on the care of children, this seems scandalously neglectful and backward. However, as Welshman reminds us, this was a time before John Bowlby's attachment theory was commonly accepted, and public policy was perhaps still more informed by public boarding-school boys than by psychotherapists.
The second half of the book explores the effects of the evacuation throughout the war, something that has often been neglected by official historical accounts and by evacuees' own stories. The ebb and flow of war and the evacuation process - escaping the bombing of the cities and the terror of the enemy's weapons of vengeance - reminds us just how dangerous it was to live in many urban areas. Parents were required to make hard choices about their children, and children were required to live with the consequences of those choices.
Welshman's examination of the impact of evacuation reveals the complex picture that the evacuation became as the war progressed. As in any story, there are heroes and villains, victims and those who benefit. The result is a mixed account of people under strain, some of whom reacted well and others less so. There are dedicated officials and volunteers who undoubtedly made a positive difference to the lives of the children for whom they cared, and foster parents and teachers whose generosity of spirit and affection poured balm on the raw nerves of their charges. But there was also a darker side of exploitation, abuse and neglect.
This account reminds us of what a huge social upheaval the evacuation was. It is baffling that so little attention has been turned on it since the war, because its effects are obvious, now as then. Small children generally do not do well emotionally when separated from caregivers for significant amounts of time and when they are not provided with suitable substitute care. Child-protection screening of foster parents for suitability needs to be in place. Finally, we need to consider the lifelong effects of the evacuation on the health of those children, most of whom are now in their seventies and eighties.
With evacuation still a possibility in the event of future attacks on a UK city, Welshman's book reminds us that this is a story that we must consider in light of our own times, rather than seeing it merely as a quaint aspect of our social history.
Churchill's Children: The Evacuee Experience in Wartime Britain
By John Welshman
Oxford University Press, 368pp, £16.99
Published 25 March 2010