Being Young on the Home Front: Young People in North West England during World War One

One hundred years on from one of the most devastating conflicts in our history – the First World War – multiple commemorations have taken place across the country. Many have taken well-trodden paths, while many others have sought to challenge our understanding of the war and its effects. These attempts to understand the war from different perspectives have also resulted in numerous studies and projects. Today’s younger population has been one of the key audiences for these studies.


This is all welcome and an important part of the centenary celebrations. However, in focusing on young people as recipients of this new understanding, the majority of studies have largely neglected young people’s experiences one hundred years ago. Moreover, there has often been a lack of thought about how young people today receive, process and react to such celebrations surrounding the war.


Young people have remained largely absent from Britain’s First World War home front story. Britain’s ‘boy soldiers’ may be familiar, but what about those who did not want to fight or the girls who wanted to fight? What was the emotional impact on the nation’s young people? How did the loss of hundreds of thousands of fathers, brother, uncles, etc. affect Britain’s children? What about those who contributed through their labour? Did young people feel underappreciated or disempowered? Indeed, young people would often be criticised as delinquents, much like the young people today who we were working with on the project. We tried to answer, or at least examine, some of the questions on the project.


The central aim, therefore, of the project ‘Being Young on the Home Front: Young People in North West England during World War One’ has been to examine the war from young people’s perspectives – both today and one hundred years ago – and in ways that will be more meaningful to them, focusing in particular on the North West of England. It has introduced young people in the local community to the history of the First World War and they were the key target audience for the project. Moreover, we sought to engage the participants in non-traditional ways in the hope that this will stimulate greater interest and further develop understanding.


The way we did this on the project was to get the young people participating to research, devise, rehearse and perform their own cultural productions. We thus gave the participants authorship of their productions, further encouraging their interest in the topic and associated themes. As well as young people acquiring knowledge and understanding of the First World War, the project has aimed to improve their research and analytical skills, encourage them to apply such knowledge and to develop their creative skills.


A second aim for the project was the development of a model – a cascade model, whereby direction was given by the project lead to group leaders (and young people directly) and then worked through participants’ authorship of piece, which lead to genuine co-production – that could applied by others (in education, youth work, etc.) to other aspects of the First World War or to histories beyond the conflict. Below you will find a series of films and a project and resource pack that document our project and demonstrate the outcomes from it. Also, there are a series of ‘catalyst films’, which show particular productions centred on some of the key themes we covered in the project. We hope that they may act as an inspiration.


Documenting the Project

This film documents the project from early meetings with youth group leaders to the final live performance of the young people’s productions. The film outlines the project’s development, while also including the thoughts of those who took part in the project.



The Live Performance

We wanted our participants in the project to not just devise their own cultural productions; we also wanted them to perform them. As such, two of the participating groups took to the stage at the Sir Ben Kingsley Theatre at Pendleton College, Salford to perform in front of a large audience. The excellent performances, which all revolved around young people’s experiences in the First World War, captivated the audience as can be seen in the main project film.


This film shows the performances in their entirety. Please note that because the productions were intended for a live audience the sound and visual quality is limited at times. Aspects of the performances – including by those groups who weren’t able to perform at the live event – can also be seen, in better quality, in the main and catalyst films.



The Catalyst Films

Five films cover different aspects of young people’s experience in the war. Each film includes the participants’ productions, key facts and figures related to the theme and introductory information. We hope that they provide some inspiration for other projects.


The Emotional Impact

Our first theme centred on the emotional impact that the war had on young people. Virtually every child was affected in some way by the war. In a war that saw 4,970,000 British men serve in the army, 407,000 in the navy and 293,000 in the air force, there would be very few families that were not impacted in some way. Having a male member of the family serving abroad in a war with so many casualties brought obvious fears and worries, but their absence from the home also had an emotional impact. Of course, for so many families those fears were realised and around 350,000 children would never see their fathers again. Furthermore, around 1,675,000 of Britain’s soldiers were wounded in the fighting. Their return was a constant reminder to Britain’s children of the effects of war, with many physically disfigured. The psychological trauma was less obvious, but that did not necessarily diminish the effects of Britain’s young people. The following three films all look at the emotional impact of the war on young people.





Young People’s Disempowerment

Our second theme on the project centred on young people’s feelings of isolation, inaction and subsequent disempowerment. Though they may have not conceived of it in those terms, many young people felt unable, for different reasons, to contribute to the war effort in what they saw as a meaningful way and felt that they did not have a voice. As young people, many also felt that their efforts were not being recognised, while there were too few areas in which they could participate.



The disempowered group that interested our participants most was ‘girls who would fight’. That is young women who wanted to contribute directly to Britain’s war effort on the front line, but were not allowed to do because of their sex. The restriction on women in the British army was total and gender divisions have remained for the last hundred years. It was only in 2016 that women were allowed to serve on the front line in the British army. Given current gender divisions, the focus for much debate, this theme particularly drew in the female participants.



Project and Resource Pack

This pack has been produced as a guide to our project and as a guide to possible educational and cultural projects that may be pursued to engage with this topic further or other topics connected to the First World War.

In this pack, you will find an overview of our project, from conception to delivery, and some reflections on the process. It is important to note that this was a project that evolved during its delivery. Primarily, this was a result of the participants and their interest, and the practical limitations associated with production and performance elements of the project. The pack also provides a guide to the key themes associated with young people and the First World War that we covered with our participants.

Our work has not been exhaustive and undoubtedly these themes can be examined further. Thus the pack gives key information about the themes, commentary on their significance, key questions that can be addressed and some contemporary source material that those wishing to look more at the themes may find useful. Finally, the pack outlines more themes that may be explored and other practices that can be pursued.


The project is part of the centenary activities planned by the First World War Engagement Centres funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council, in partnership with the Heritage Lottery Fund. It is directly funded by the Voices of War and Peace Engagement Centre run by the University of Birmingham. The project lead is Dr Marcus Morris, Senior Lecturer in History at Manchester Metropolitan University, in conjunction with Sue Reddish and Jim Dalziel, who have worked directly with the groups and have produced the cultural outputs. Liaising with the Little Hulton and Walkden Neighbourhood Community Team we have worked with a number of schools, colleges and youth groups in the Salford area. We have worked particularly closely with Harrop Fold School, Walkden High School and Salford City College, Pendleton.