A look at Young England (1914-1915)

My speciality is Girl’s Own, but sometimes my interest gets caught by those publications intended squarely for boyish readers. Such it was with Young England, a compiled annual of a ‘story paper’ for boys. I picked up copies of the 1914-1915 and the 1909-1910 editions for an absolute song, intrigued by the size of the volumes and their other-worldliness. These aren’t small things, nor are they subtle. Each is very much orientated towards the boys of the Empire, and ensuring their place in the greater scheme of things. And for somebody who’s fascinated by historical children’s literature, and the way that it can reveal everything about the world, these books are an absolute gift.

There’s an interesting breakdown of the 1914-1915 edition of Young England here, with details of the relevant stories in the volume and also a good luck at the images. I want to offer a slightly different review, focusing instead on the tone of the annual and some of the key themes that come across in it. I also want you to imagine yourself as a ten or eleven year old child reading this. Some of the content is rather remarkable, and Young England certainly makes no bones about the fact that it it sees it as noble to fight a war and noble to give yourself for your country. It’s a difficult read at points, preparing as it is a whole generation for military service and sacrifice, and some of the passages are almost incomprehensible.

This is one such passage. It’s from A Good Samaritan on the Battlefield by Margaret Watson, and it made me stop in my tracks. As with many of the ‘real life’ contributions in this volume, it borders on the edge between truth and propaganda. This definitely steps over towards propaganda, telling the story of a young private named John Smith and how he was looked after by ‘Johannes Schmidt’ when injured. The German keeps John and his colleagues alive, feeding and watering him, until he’s forced to retreat and abandon his wards. Upon subsequent rescue by their own side, the Englishmen pay tribute and thanks to Johannes. I got a little lost in the nature of the tribute itself, as it involves something to do with a cairn and rocks, and I couldn’t work out whether these were metaphorical rocks, actual rocks or indeed some weird ‘I say this but actually mean something quite different’ tic of language back then. I kept coming back to this passage however and wondering over it. Worrying too, I guess, sensing at something beyond the words that I couldn’t ever hope to grasp and trying to figure out the impact of that. As a reader. And as a writer.

I tried to find out something more about Margaret Watson, but she’s not an easy one to find. I wondered if these odd little fables, these morality plays of great and deep import, were all she’d written or if she’d ever looked at doing something else. And, I suppose, I wanted to know how she’d felt being part of this collection that urges young boys so gleefully to a war and to a noble, awful death.

It’s wrong to throw all of this at Margaret’s feet, because she’s one voice out of a hundred here. Young England is dominated by these voices which want players in this great narrative of the Empire and of Plucky Britain Doing What’s Right And What’s Honourable. Many of the stories here involve protracted negotiations of honour, redemption, and I was particularly struck by one serial which sees a young family redeem their father who’s been set up by his business colleagues. There’s another which sees the boys of a nondescript public school sacrifice themselves (metaphorically) so that the other man may benefit from their action. It’s not hard to see the attitude here about the war being a Great Adventure – but it’s also not hard to see why a whole generation of boys believed that.

The war underpins nearly everything in this book. Take a look at this game suggested for the boys to learn. It’s called BUCKET DRILL and it involves being able to throw a bucket of water on anything. Not just throw – actually hit that thing with force. As fires are “in these days” inevitable things, the boys can then help to put out a fire if needs be. They can do their part. (They can also do it by throwing water at a “stodgy, good-tempered boy”, and win points “every time you knock the wind out of him or bowl him right over”, which is a remarkable sentence if ever I saw one). BUCKET DRILL is the subtext becoming text. It’s the palpable fear of invasion being made flesh, and the fact that war is coming to their doorstep. Not if – but when. It’s important to recognise that this was a worldwide publication – as evidenced by stories featuring New Zealand, Canada and China – and so many of the children reading this magazine, and indeed the young adults it suggests that you send it onto – were probably already caught up in the war at some level.

I suspect that hindsight and a fairly liberalistic attitude makes me uncomfortable with what this volume says more than anything. There’s a question to be asked of whether it was actually kind of doing something great. I believe intensely that children need to learn of the darkness of the world in a safe space and in a controlled way. One of my favourite books of all time shows girls a way to fight against the horrors of Nazism and a world determined to eat itself. Why should it be any different for boys?

I’m not familiar enough with the boys juvenilia of this period to answer such a question so I’ll leave that hanging. Suffice to say, this is a powerful volume with some rather moving qualities and should you come across a copy, I’d highly recommend you picking it up. Young England is like a little time capsule of who we were, and what we wanted our children to be. And honestly, it’s rather remarkable.

Reading Young England also reminded me of something I’d read a while back. It took me a moment to dig out the connection, but here it is. Back when he was eleven, George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair) wrote a poem called “Awake! Young Men of England” and had it published in his local newspaper:

 OH! give me the strength of the Lion,
The wisdom of Reynard the Fox
And then I’ll hurl troops at the Germans
And give them the hardest of knocks.

Oh! think of the War Lord’s mailed fist,
That is striking at England today:
And think of the lives that our soldiers
Are fearlessly throwing away.

Awake! Oh you young men of England,
For if, when your Country’s in need,
You do not enlist by the thousand,
You truly are cowards indeed.