Tuesday, July 5, 2011

When Childrens Dolls Went Off To War (1916)

by Stephen J. Gertz

Dust jacket.

In 1916, the grim, charnel year of World War I in which  over 1,300,000  young men fell dead or wounded during the battles of  the Somme and Verdun, a slim, unassuming book for children was published. Josephine and her Dolls, the first book in what would become a series by Mrs. H.C. Cradock, each illustrated by Honor C. Appleton (1879-1951), is, to the best of my research, the first  book for children to directly address war  from a child's perspective.

Children up to seven years old are, according to the great developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, in a preoperational stage of development in which, for example, the child may behave toward  dolls as if they were real persons; the line between fantasy and reality has yet to be firmly drawn. A child at this age uses dolls to make sense of the world around them, assimilating new, often puzzling, information and stimuli and accommodating to it through the staged behavioral interaction of the dolls.

Stress and anxiety are worked through and lessons learned in the child’s fantasy scenarios. New words, phrases, the surrounding emotional landscape, the behavior of adults -  a sensory, cognitive, and affective flood - all are integrated into doll play through which chaos becomes, however fantastical, ordered, and a degree of comprehension achieved. Childrens' doll-play, however imperfect and unformed the mirror, reflects the adult world.

The doll-play tableaus created may not make any sense to adults but they do so to the child in perfect child-logic. Doll-play is living theater of the pre-pubescent absurd, the dolls Pirandello-like characters in search of a juvenile dramatist to bring them to life to act out and give meaning to the world of that child within the incomprehensible world of adults.

To write a book for children using a doll-play scenario as the narrative device is, then, an inspired choice; the book is not written down to children by an invisible, anonymous and omniscient  adult  but, rather, by a child, with face and name, to share with peers, employing a familiar mode of play. Which, ultimately, makes the reading of the book a playtime activity, a very positive association.

Chapter one opens with little Josephine introducing us to her family of dolls, a sixteen-member cavalcade of personalities. And then, without further preamble, Josephine takes us to the subject of her child drama.

Josephine's doll-drama follows the typical arc of war, beginning with its patriotic call to arms and the enthusiasm of young males to heed it, test their mettle, and, hopefully, become men.

...Followed by a family's fears for loved ones' safety.

Battle is then joined and harsh reality addressed. Doll Dorothy is wounded and brought in on a stretcher. "We [Josephine and the dolls] decided that she should be a wounded Belgian, and that Dora and Rachel should be Red Cross nurses, and the boys soldiers." Doll William is chosen to be the German emperor (Kaiser Wilhelm) because of his name. "I painted a fierce moustache on his face," Josephine says. William is not a happy doll.

"The battle was very fierce, and raged greatly, and many were wounded and killed. Then the Red Cross nurses walked bravely on the field of battle, and waved a white flag, and everybody stopped fighting; and they said to the Emperor: 'Please, Sire, may we take the wounded away and nurse them?' And he said: 'Yes, you may,' And they did."

After the battle William begged not to be the Emperor anymore and Josephine allowed him to be the doctor as long as he promised to become the Emperor again, if necessary. The doctor was busy: 

"Little Teddy was the first wounded man to be brought in. His leg was off. But he was very brave and never cried once. Then Patrick came in. He could barely just walk..." Quacky-Jack enters on a stretcher. The Doctor gives them each a piece of chocolate to make them feel better.

But enough is enough.

No it isn't.

"'All right,' said the German Emperor.

"So they shook hands, and were friends again, and all the people clapped."

And there it is, World War I reduced to child bite-sized understanding, a family feud gone horribly wrong, first cousins King George and Kaiser Wilhelm (grandchildren of Queen Victoria, as was Czarina Alexandra of Russia), and King George and Czar Nicholas first cousins through their mothers, in a monumental spat with catastrophic consequences, the family tree falling atop Europe and the Middle East, the warning, Timber!, unheeded with grotesque result.

"'Now children,' I said, looking gravely at them all, 'let this war be a lesson to you all. No more quarreling...I then put them all to bed, and there they are now."

I don't think I've been able to capture the power that Cradock as Josephine brings to bear in this simple narrative. Whether Mrs. Henry Cowper Cradock (1863-1941), née Augusta Whiteford, a teacher, intended to or not, she wrote a great, if unheralded, anti-war novel for kids, best read, perhaps, by adults. And provided further evidence that if you want an issue broken down to its simple, clearest essence, pruned of its foliage and without adult sophistry, ask a child.

Josephine and Her Dolls is, in its quiet way, the juvenile precursor to All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), an anti-war story written, rather courageously, I think, in the midst of the Great War, not afterward, and from a child's point of view. It is the  anti-Childrens Crusade, and a gently pointed admonition that this has all gone way too far, that the adult doll-masters have, in their own fantasies, utterly failed; real people do not bleed excelsior.

The book is also quite rare, with no copies coming to auction within the last thirty-six years and OCLC recording only ten copies in library holdings worldwide.

[APPLETON, Honor C., illustrator]. CRADOCK, Mrs. H.C. Josephine and Her Dolls. Related by Mrs. H.C. Cradock. Pictured by Honor C. Appleton. London-Glasgow-Bombay: Blackie and Son Limited, n.d. [1916]. Tall octavo. 47, [1] pp. Eight full color plates, incl. frontispiece, eight back and white drawings. Publisher's original quarter cloth over pictorial paper boards. Dust jacket.

As youngsters routinely shred them within 72 hours, dust jackets to this volume, as with many  old and/or rare childrens books, are scarce.

Images courtesy of David Brass Rare Books, currently offering this volume, with our thanks.

Disclosure: In an earlier incarnation, I studied and practiced Occupational Therapy in pediatric and geriatric settings, performing my psych. internship at UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute. O.T., the first allied medical profession to adopt holistic, mind-body treatment (in the late 19th century), uses  goal-specific everyday activities meaningful to the patient, including dolls, as an essential therapeutic modality. It is why, I suppose, that I find this little book so extraordinary.


  1. We had a similar occurrence when my father got cancer and suddenly my daughter's dolls were dying because they weren't eating.

    A sad time which only became sadder.

  2. I like your observation about asking a child if you want to get a clear and simple picture of a situation.


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