Skip to main content

WWI Primary Resource Guide: Children, family life and civilian experiences of WWI

This guide aims to highlight a range of key primary resources relevant to the British experience of WWI.
Subjects: History - British

Children, family life and civilian experiences of WWI

British Library, a child's perspective of airship raids over London

Included among the digitised WWI resources on the British Library website are handwritten impressions of airship raids over London in 1915, as recorded by boys of Princeton Street Elementary School, Holborn. Their accounts reveal how unexpected the air raids were, as well as how unprepared Britain was to deal with this new threat. Most of the boys were getting ready for bed or playing out on the street when the Zeppelins arrived, which shows that Londoners had no prior warning of the attacks detailed. The boys express both excitement and fear at the sight of the air ships, and it is clear that most went outside to inspect the damage once they had left.

The British Library

Wellcome Library, nutrition and rationing during WWI

During WWI, food shortages impacted on the civilian populations of all combatant nations. Agriculture and distribution suffered from strains imposed by war demands, and naval blockades reduced imports. Britain relied heavily on imported grain, and Germany’s campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare was intended to expose her to a food crisis. The government attempted to increase food production, but their main success was in introducing successful systems of rationing. Rationing began in London early in 1918, and was extended nationwide during the summer.

Those interested in the planning, implementation and impact of food rationing may wish to consult the Wellcome Library, which holds material (including minutes and annual reports) from the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine, which was involved in research concerning rationing and the nutritional requirements of the population.

On a related note, The Wellcome Library also holds the files of the British Medical Association, which include information on malnutrition and the control of tuberculosis in wartime, and on the consequences of the employment by military authorities of civilian doctors.

TACA, British Army children

The Army Children Archive

The Army Children Archive (TACA) collects, preserves and shares information about the history of British Army children and the challenges of growing up as the child of a member of the armed forces. The TACA website includes personal accounts, photos and cartoons, and may serve as a contact point for those wishing to conduct further research into this area.

In commemorating the centenary of the start of WWI, TACA has launched two online galleries. ‘The Army Children of the First World War: Faces and Families’ features portraits of army children and their families photographed between 1914 and 1918. During the First World War, most British children were impacted on in some way. Zeppelin raids were a direct threat to many, whilst attacks on British shipping by enemy submarines led to food shortages and, in 1918, rationing. Meanwhile, the requirement that fathers 'do their bit' meant that many children lost contact with them, some permanently. Whilst a lot of the faces in the gallery are anonymous, as much information as is known about the families pictured has been given.

Meanwhile, ‘The Army Children of the First World War: a Sentimental View’ includes a selection of postcards and ephemera featuring army children. Postcards were a popular means of communication between families during the war, due in no small part to the Field Post Offices (FPOs) of the Army Postal Service (APS) operated by the Royal Engineers. Personal considerations aside, the subjects of picture postcards are interesting historical documents in themselves, providing an insight into national preoccupations, such as the need for thriftiness or remaining resolute in the face of separation and hardship.

LSE, Beveridge Papers and the Government Committee on the Prevention and Relief of Distress

The British Library of Political and Economic Science (LSE) contains the personal and business papers of the economist William Beveridge. Beveridge held a number of important wartime offices, incudling Secretary of the Ministry of Food, and his papers include information on rationing and family budgets. Material is available concerning the 9d loaf and the bread subsidy (1917), along with the sugar distribution scheme (1916-17). Researchers can also consult the diary of the Ministry of Food (1917-1919), and the minutes of the Food Council (1917-1920), which shed further light on the impact of WWI on civilian life.

The library also contains minutes and papers from the Government Committee on the Prevention and Relief of Distress, which emerged during the war in order to address increased occurrences of financial hardship. The Committee examined the plight of various areas throughout Britain which were considered to be in need of assistance, and had the power to recommend that Local Representative Committees grant various sums of money to these areas.

Cymru 1914, oral history, civilian reactions to war

Cymru 1914 is a useful portal for discovering digitised material pertinent to the Home Front during WWI. It incorporates much oral history, including restrospective interviews with a range of people concerning their experiences of WWI. The interviews address issues such as initial reactions to war, changes in work and employment, food shortages, fractured communities and the loss of family and friends. These interviews provide an immediacy and a poignancy unattainable via many official documents, and are of great value to researchers seeking to understand the impact of these events on civilian life. Transcripts are included, whilst a translation tool is provided for those conducted in the Welsh language.

University of Reading, Special Collections, Children's Collection

Special Collections at the University of Reading have created a Children’s Collection, which comprises over 6,000 books and journals written for children during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The collection contains several original stories published between 1914-1918, a proportion of which are focused on WWI. Included are Under the white ensign: a naval story of the Great War (Westerman, 1917) and The Queen’s gift book: in aid of Queen Mary’s auxiliary hospitals for soldiers and sailors who have lost their limbs in the war (Galsworthy, 1915),  which contain assorted writings, stories and poems for children highlighting the moral righteousness of the war and the sacrifices being made. Whilst a tone of adventure is maintained, so too is an emphasis on the seriousness of the cause.

IWM, media depicting the Home Front

Among the many films which can be accessed via IWM Collections and Research, ‘Lest We Forget’ provides a snapshot of the types of challenges people faced on the Home Front during WWI. Footage shows the wreckage of a Zeppelin on the ground at Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, after its crash on the night of  October 1st 1916. The wreck, guarded by British soldiers, is completely burnt out, leaving only the twisted metal structure. Among the wreckage can be seen incendiary bombs, Maxim guns and ammunition belts. More than 5000 bombs were dropped on towns across Britain during the war, killing 557 people and injuring a further 1358. Civilian casualties made the Zeppelins an object of hatred, and they were widely dubbed 'baby-killers'.

Imperial War Museum