Once Upon A Wartime: Classic War Stories for Children arrives at Imperial War Museum

By Rachel Hayward | 11 February 2011
Photo showing the recreation of the secret fortress belonging to the boys iin the Robert Westall novel The Machine Gunners that is part of the Imperial war Museum exhibition Once Upon A Wartime and looks like a WWII Anderson shelter with a mattress, sand bags, crates and pages from comics on the wall
Step into The Machine Gunners' secret fortress at the IWM's Once Upon A Wartime exhibition© Rachel Hayward
Once Upon A Wartime Exhibition: Classic War Stories for Children exhibition is on at the IWM, London until October 30, 2011.

With the success of Michael Morpurgo’s novel War Horse as a West End stage play and forthcoming War Horse film, the IWM has chosen the perfect time to host this exhibition showcasing classic war stories for children.

Were you brought up on Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War, Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword or The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall? Then Once Upon A Wartime will transport you back to your childhood as you relive Carrie and her brother’s evacuation to Wales in Carrie's War or the journey the Balicki family take across war torn Europe to be reunited again in the Silver Sword.

Each room in the Once Upon A Wartime exhibition takes a different story for its theme, so my advice if you’re taking children is to read the stories with them before you go along or get hold of tapes from the library. They’ll get so much more out of the exhibition and appreciate the undoubted treasures on display.

There are the authors’ manuscripts (complete with crossings out and changes), contemporary wartime artefacts and life-size settings from the novels, not least the boys’ hidden fortress in The Machine Gunners. What child, or grown-up for that matter, doesn’t like stepping into a secret hide-out?

a photo of an exhibition display with pictures and posters
© Rachel Hayward
The exhibition opens with stunning exhibits based on the modern classic, War Horse. If you have been to see War Horse at the theatre and marvelled at the puppet horses on stage, then the wooden horse on display here - used to train new soldiers how to saddle up - will be even more poignant for you.

You can also see the picture of a cavalry charge, belonging to the Morpurgo family, that helped inspire the writing of War Horse. For fans of the story, it doesn’t get much better than this.

As you pass a haunting white scale model of WWI no man’s land, a themed evacuees’ corridor complete with a working toy train takes you into World War Two and Hepzibah’s kitchen, a life-size set from Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War.

As Once Upon A Wartime continues with its detailed explorations of The Silver Sword and The Machine Gunners you’re not allowed to leave the exhibition thinking that children caught up in war is a subject safely for the past.

The final novel dealt with is Bernard Ashley’s Little Soldier. Ashley based his story on news reports of child soldiers in 1990s war-torn Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the story, the boy soldier Kaninda is rescued from the rebel army only to find himself thrust into the gang violence of South London.

“I wanted to communicate the shock I felt when I found out about child soldiers and also the London gang killings.” says Ashley.

“War is so huge a subject to comprehend that these novels and this exhibition, I feel, help you to understand it better through individuals – the children and their experiences.”

Once Upon A Wartime is certainly a hard hitting exhibition. Don’t go expecting to see something along the lines of the joyous and life-affirming 2009/10 War Boy: The Michael Foreman exhibition at the National Army Museum, which included recreations of the author’s childhood including a walk-in sweet shop, and a Morrison shelter complete with playable ping pong table.

Once Upon A Wartime, in many ways, deals with much darker childhood experiences  - so just go prepared.
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