We were interested to read last week about the V&A Museum of Childhood's new exhibition, 'War Games,' exploring, according to their web site's blurb, 'the fascinating relationship between conflict and children's play.' We hope to visit soon but until then, it seemed timely to share some of our own examples of military-themed toys from the Great War era.
Before 1914, German imports had accounted for the majority of toys bought in Britain and even today, names such as Steiff are synonymous with quality. It is unlikely any Britons would have tolerated their children playing with toys manufactured by the enemy, but the outbreak of war and the immediate suspension of all trade with Germany meant that the familiar supply of German toys came to a halt. In response, British manufacturers took to work to prove that their toys were superior in both quality and innovation.
With what seems to be incredible speed, war-themed toys were soon in the shops. In December 1914, Gamages, the famous Holborn store, combined its annual Christmas Bazaar with a 'Great War Tableaux' and suggested Dreadnought crackers for the festive season as well as a game called, 'Britwar.' By the following year, it was staging a military pageant and advertising miniature Army and RFC uniforms for children, a horse-drawn Red Cross wagon as well as books filled with tales of wartime derring-do. Other toys included terrifyingly accurate miniature reproductions of weaponry such as the 'anti-aircraft Maxim gun,' 'a Dunkirk armoured motor-car,' a field hospital or a board game, uncompromisingly called, 'Kill Kiel,' in which players could move dreadnoughts around the North Sea. Teddy bears in khaki or Red Cross nurse's uniforms offered a gentler but still martially-led alternative. One board game of 'Trench Football', pictured here, requires the player to dribble a football past shell-holes and a dastardly German defence including, 'a feeble opponent in "Little Willie" at outside right.' 'Loot ball is his speciality,' advises the instructions, alluding to a story where the German Crown Prince was accused of stealing treasures from a French chateau. With his cartoonish moustache and a ferocious expression at the end of the board is the Kaiser, 'Lord High Everything, Canting Bully Bill in "GOAL" you must keep your eye on, he holds the record for mouth and foul play.' The manufacturer, R.G & A, who had also made a similar game called, 'The Silver Bullet - Or the Road to Berlin,' proudly declared, 'British Design - British Made,' on each product.
In fact, through a combination of enforced necessity and patriotism, the British toy industry went through something of a revival during this time. At Parkstone Toy Factory in Dorset, dolls' houses were made to customer specifications, including replicas of one's own house. At other factories, production lines of women workers stuffed teddy bears, smaller cottage industries were encouraged to make toys, having the additional benefit of securing employment for women at home, and at the Lord Roberts Memorial Workshops, where wounded men were rehabilitated and learnt new skills, larger wooden toys such as wheelbarrows and engines were crafted to the highest standards of quality.
Our final picture was featured as a full page in The Graphic in its 25 December 1915 issue and shows a little girl playing with a wooden puppet of the much-maligned "Little Willie". Perhaps this was homemade rather than mass-produced, but it proves that Britain was more than willing to spread its anti-German message as widely as possible, even into the nursery.