During World War I, soldiers went into battle, leaving family and friends behind. Children and mothers found themselves in the painful uncertainty of whether they would ever see their beloved fathers, brothers and husbands again.
Four years and a deadly flu pandemic can change a lot.
Experts say the Great War, along with the Second World War, saw women take on new roles and mold generations of children, ushering in a societal shift that still resonates today.
Kristine Alexander, an associate professor of history at the University of Lethbridge, has studied handwritten letters from wartime families. In these letters, she found that for most children, war begins when their fathers put on uniforms and depart to train and, eventually, fight overseas. She says children worked, worried and waited during the war years.
“They were old enough to remember, but too young to fight.”
The letters opened a window into the lives of the children, who felt responsible towards their mother, younger siblings and even towards work.
“The war invaded the children’s world in all sorts of different ways… their home, their family life, but it also changed the kind of things they learned in school. You can see that also shapes their game,” Alexander said.
Elizabeth Galway is Professor of English Literature at the University of Lethbridge and author of The figure of the child in American, British and Canadian children’s literature of the First World War: farmer, tailor, soldier, spy.
The name of his book itself defines some of the many roles children actively play, from farming to making clothes, to being a teenage soldier and, as some believe, an innocent spy. and unpredictable.
Sometimes during both wars, boys as young as 13 lied to join the army.
Approximately 700,000 Canadians under the age of 21 served in uniform during the Second World War.
She said that children’s literature during the war years helped foster Canadian identity.
“Canada’s participation reinforced that pride in Canada and reinforced the growing sense of Canada as an independent nation with a history of its own, but also those military achievements to celebrate,” she said. .
Galway said many writers inspired a sense of pride and inspired children to contribute as much as they could, and some expressed concerns about the war.
The balancing act, she said, is also found in the celebration of Remembrance Day. While some remember the horrors of war, there is also a sense of pride and celebration.
Women at war, the beginning of a socio-economic change
When World War I started, there were limits to what women were allowed to do. Be that as it may, women began to do all sorts of jobs deemed unsuitable for them.
Many wore uniforms and were enlisted as nurses. Many ran a household themselves while working in factories or farms, selling postcards to raise war funds, and the like.
In 1917, when the Canadian government granted limited wartime suffrage to some women, this included women working in the military.
At the time of World War II, more than half a million women served in the three branches of the armed forces: navy, army and air force.
Amy Shaw, an associate professor of history at the University of Lethbridge, said while the change was meant to be temporary, it allowed women to push for it to become permanent.
“You have these images of 1950s suburban housewives that we have from the aftermath of World War II, when everyone was trying to get back to retrograde gender roles,” she said.
She said the women who drove a jeep in France, fought for their country and knew how capable they were of working and raising children when their husbands were away, didn’t want to go back to “normal”.
“Then the kids they raised were the kids that really pushed the issue, and we had what was called the Women’s Lib [liberation] movement in the ’70s and that kind of effort to make things more egalitarian,” Shaw said.
She said war is seen as a man’s story.
“But in both of these wars, soldiers were supported by connections back home, armed, fed and clothed by connections back home,” she said.
“Trying to do an unfamiliar job with less money, while raising children, is a difficult thing. Also, during World War II, women were among those who went overseas.”
The war shaped literature, Canadian identity and the women’s movement. A reminder of these lasting effects of war can be seen in the letters of daily correspondence between children and parents, Alexander said.
“Reading every piece of correspondence, seeing him describe his daily life experiences, whether he was on leave or in the trenches. And then at a certain point, it quiets down. And I know he met its end, one way or another, tragically.… It was a stark reminder that war is awful… that it comes at a really, really huge cost.