Playing Soldier:

The books and toys that prepared children for war,



Richard Cheek

The Groller Club, New York 2018

Hardcover  471pp   RRP $86.88


Reviewer: Mike O’Brien, June 2019


This lavish volume has been generously given to us by the printer, the renowned Oak Knoll Press. It flows from an exhibition that was held at the Grolier Club in the latter part of 2018 of Richard Cheek’s extensive collection. The Grolier Club is America’s oldest and largest society for bibliophiles. Its objective is to promote “the study, collecting, and appreciation of books and works on paper.” It pursues this mission through its library, its public exhibitions and lectures, and its long and distinguished series of publications. The Club has a coat-of-arms rather than a logo and I rather suspect that one needs to be invited to join it. Nevertheless, it really should be on everyone’s ‘must see’ list when visiting New York.

Our interest in this volume is connected with children’s books on war and our library’s growing collection of them. This book is the last word on the series of high Victorian books (mainly for boys) that extolled the virtues of British Empire values (and their American parallels). It also traces the effect that the harsh realities of the First World War had on this genre, removing some of the romance, derring-do and unrealism and replacing them with a measure of harsh reality suitable for children.

Is the thought of children’s books on war bizarre? There is little doubt that children are among the first victims of any war. Further, if we truly want a peaceful world, then it is important that we actively work toward one[1]. That includes involving our youth in exploring issues of war and peace in thoughtful, age-appropriate ways. The best examples of this literature do this. No doubt there can be an undesirable trend towards the militarisation of children: this is an undesirable approach, part of the worst of this literature.

The book is divided into sections dealing with items from Germany, France, Great Britain and the United States. The British section has direct relevance to Australia as most of our publishing in that period emanated from the UK. In each case the materials discussed are predominantly books and works on paper with a small proportion of the related toys. Each segment is beautifully illustrated (there are over 1200 of them) and the sources of the pictures are meticulously noted.

Richard Cheek points out that perhaps the first children’s book on war was Frederick Marryat’s Children of the New Forest, set in the English Civil War, a book deservedly still in print. In the British Empire a raft of authors emerged prior to the First World War. I still remember reading the books by G.A. Henty, the father and son Westermans, G Manville Fenn, Captain (he rose to Lt Col) Brereton and many of that ilk, many of which had war themes. They were characterised (in earlier editions) by colourful illustrated bindings and imaginative drawings. Cheek has an enviable collection of pristine copies of these, noting that they were frequently given as school prizes. He has acquired and described their much rarer counterparts for girls: titles like A VAD in Salonika, Munition Mary, The Khaki Girls of the Motor Corps, A Girl Munition Worker, A Sister of the Red Cross: a Story of Ladysmith and Ruth Fielding at the War Front.

There are few unacknowledged Australian references in this book. W.H. Fitchett from Methodist Ladies’ College Kew became a household name with his Deeds that Won the Empire. The book was placed by the Admiralty in all warships' libraries, adopted as a holiday-task book in some great English public schools and printed in Braille. 100,000 copies of the six-penny edition were sold. It is also a nice touch to have a prize bookplate from Scotch College, Hawthorn in 1909 illustrated: it is a special award for L.J. Mullet in Form IVB for cricket (fielding)!

The scope of the books described ranges from ABCs and Nursery Rhymes for Fighting Times for tiny tots to juvenile novels with heroes partnering with Haig, Nelson, Wellington, Drake, Foch and French.

There are some sobering remarks in the introduction. The extent to which pre-war children’s books in Germany, France and Britain (and particularly their propaganda elements) encouraged the First World War is a regrettable outcome. Jingoisim is never an attractive practice.

This volume is a most welcome addition to our library and one of the few copies in Australia. It is an important guide to this literature and a great complement to the juvenile books on our collection.



[1] This concept is put forward by the Institute for Humane Education (USA)  - see accessed 12 June 2019.

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