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June-July 2011: Churchill’s Children: The Evacuee Experience in Wartime Britain

Review by:  Martin Parsons, University of Reading

John Welshman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. 368 pp. $32.95 (hardcover).

I found this an enjoyable book to read. It is well written and easy to digest and it is a good social account of the time, based to a large extent on the memories of those who took part in the evacuation scheme. However, although it is a useful addition to the existing material on evacuation in World War Two, it says very little that one would consider new or groundbreaking.

 One of my major concerns is that I am not convinced that the author is sure of the audience he is aiming at.  On the one hand the book goes into some considerable, and often very valuable, detail about the academic arguments surrounding evacuation, while on the other it tends to drift into a narrative which sometimes creates a very ‘romantic’ picture of the ‘rural idyll’ and the scheme in general, for example  the comments about ‘rabbits scurrying to their burrows’.  Some of the content one would also consider irrelevant, such as the section on architectural styles, and there is too much explanation of the lives and lifestyles of specific individuals such as Waugh, Lyttleton, MacNulty and Harrisson et al, which detracts from the text and adds little to the overall debate. 

Of positive note, some of the primary sources are fascinating and used effectively within the text.  For example, the section dealing with health contains information which would be very interesting for students getting to grips with the minutiae of the topic, and the similar part in the chapter ‘Victims or Vandals?’  is dealt with ‘sympathetically’.   However, I am surprised that the author has not used more up to date secondary sources, but instead relied on some which would now be considered outdated and, in one or two cases, verging on vanity publishing. For instance there is no mention of the Children in War journal, or the very recent work done on the long term effects of war-child separation by Steve Davies, Peter Heinl , Pentti Anderson et al.   

There are also some minor historical issues which one would question, such as teachers walking through trains, where the vast majority were non-corridor, and children using the toilets where very few were available, certainly in the 1939 Evacuation. The former may be of little relevance, but the latter certainly was, as many children arrived in the reception areas having ‘wet’ themselves as a result of having been offered drinks at almost all the stations the trains stopped at.  In addition, although mention is made of food packages being prepared at the Reception end, it is implied that these were for the children, whereas they were designed to supplement the hosts rations for 48 hours, and nothing is said about some of the children eating the food on the trains when such rations had been given to them before the journey, many of whom were sick as a consequence. The significance being that the lack of facilities on the train and the state of some of the children on arrival brought about the beginnings of the rumours of ‘dirty evacuees’, a label which has upset evacuees even to this day.  In some cases these omissions are more a result of the possible memory deficiencies of the interviewees rather than inaccuracy.  However, although there is some mention of the need to take care when dealing with reminiscences this could have been expanded to ensure that the reader takes this into consideration while reading the individual accounts.

One further positive aspect of this book is the excellent material concerning Scotland which is often overlooked within the broader picture of ‘Evacuation within the UK’. I would consider this book, and indeed recommend it, as an entry level text to any student or member of the public wishing to gain an overall understanding of evacuation on mainland UK during World War Two.

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