Children under Fire

By Leticia Fernández-Fontecha

The cover of LIFE magazine published on 23 September 1940 quickly established itself as an iconic image in the battle against the Third Reich.[1] It features a photograph of a little girl clutching a stuffed toy and staring straight at the camera in an innocent and slightly sad way. The text accompanying the photograph directs the narrative, explaining how “the wide-eyed young lady on the cover” is Eileen Dunne, a young victim of the Blitz who is recovering in a north of England hospital. “A German bomber whose crew had never met her dropped a bomb on a North England village” and “a splinter from it hit Eileen”. [2] The photograph was taken by Cecil Beaton whose photographs of the “home front” were published in pamphlets and magazines distributed at home and abroad.

Leticia Life

Cecil Beaton, Image of Eileen Dunne on the cover of  LIFE, 1940 © IWM (MH 26395).

Beaton was working for the War Artists’ Advisory Committee (WAAC), set up by National Gallery director Kenneth Clark, which sent artists to cities in flames and which played a big role in creating and sustaining the “myth of the Blitz.” The WAAC artists were backed by the Ministry of Information, which believed they would both leave a valuable testimony to the difficult times and provide moral support to the British public.

The committee commissioned pictures of buildings damaged in air raids as well as photographs of the children and adult civilian victims of the Blitz. It was a WAAC mission that led to Beaton’s visit to the north of England and the image of Eileen Dunne, a powerful example of wartime visual propaganda  widely reproduced in pro-war media in the USA, which did not enter the war until more than a year later.

A different Beaton photograph of the same girl had been published two days earlier in the Illustrated London News, with a different propagandistic purpose in mind. Here Eileen holds the toy closely against her body, bearing the pain with stoicism. This photograph, directed at the British public, is more in line with normative representations of romantic childhood and was accompanied by a combative message: “Bombers Prey. Goering’s attacks on London achieve little but the maiming and slaughtering of children.”[3] While The LIFE photograph sought to make the American population aware of the Blitz’s effects on civilians, this image conveyed a different message: in spite of the children’s suffering, Great Britain would never surrender.

Leticia Illustrated News

Cecil Beaton, Image of Eileen Dunne on the cover of the Illustrated London News, 1940.

The advent of aerial warfare changed the status of civilians, who became direct targets rather than a group to be protected from war’s impact. British wartime propaganda sought to show a country that was able to “take it”—survive the German onslaught—and children played a central role in this message.[4] The powerful iconography of the Eileen Dunne photograph, which combines notions of innocence and suffering, embodied both the experience of civilian victims of the Blitz and of all those who were fighting in the war. The child’s pain thus became an icon of Britain’s fight against Nazism.

But not everyone accepted this propaganda and the myth of the “People’s War” presented by the government to boost morale and encourage volunteer efforts. Against the official message, psychoanalysts saw fragile children suffering from emotional disturbance as a result of both the bombs and the policy of evacuation. At the same time, while some social groups saw evacuees as unruly children who spread diseases through their dirty habits, others saw only victims of poverty and social injustice.

[1] See Roberts, Hilary, Cecil Beaton: Theatre of War (Jonathan Cape, London, 2012).

[2] LIFE Magazine, 23 September 1940.

[3 ] The Illustrated London News, September 21, 1940.

[4]  Susan R. Grayzel, At Home and under Fire: Air Raids and Culture in Britain from the Great War to the Blitz, Cambridge University Press, 2014, 259.

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