This month is the 70th anniversary of the start of civilian evacuations from British cities, during World War II. It was the greatest movement of people ever known in the United Kingdom.
Operation Pied Piper swung into effect on 31 August 1939, with the command: ‘Evacuate forthwith’. In the first days of September, an estimated three million people were transported from towns and cities in danger from enemy bombers, to places of safety in the countryside. Some children were even shipped overseas.
The majority of evacuees were schoolchildren separated from parents for the first time. Most had no idea where they were going, or the kind of life awaiting them. They did not know when they would be coming home and, perhaps most worrying of all, what would happen to the rest of their families while they were gone.
Labelled like pieces of luggage and escorted by teachers, evacuees were gathered into groups and put on the first available train regardless of its destination.
School and family groups were often separated in the onward transfer from mainline trains to local lines and buses. It was a time of fear, anger and desperation for children, and is still remembered with very mixed feelings by some today.
As the cities of Britain – London, Manchester and Liverpool – emptied, coastal towns and country villages filled up. Homes were opened to strangers and city visitors were housed, in the general willingness to assist the war effort and save those most vulnerable to Nazi German aerial bombing.
For those embarking on rural life, many new experiences lay ahead. As well as new homes, schools and guardians, many children were required to attend church and Sunday school, sometimes for the first time.
Even in the early 1940s, rural communities often held more resolutely to their religious heritage than their urban counterparts. Children’s author Nina Bawden, herself an evacuee, wrote Carrie’s war, a novel about two children who amongst other things encounter different religions when they are evacuated to Wales.
As the nation faced war and an uncertain future, the need for God’s help seemed greater than ever. How earnest and urgent must have been the prayers of separated families that God would preserve their loved ones and bring them back together soon.
It was not always to be so. While the experience of many evacuees was good, others were mistreated and abused by families who neither wanted nor cared for them. Some never made it home at all. In September 1940, a ship carrying 90 child evacuee passengers to Canada was torpedoed by a German U-Boat and sunk. Seventy-seven of the children perished.
For many of us today, with children or grandchildren of our own, the dilemma faced by those parents 70 years ago seems awful. Confronted with the choice of keeping our children in a dangerous place, or sending them away for an indefinite period, it is hard to know what we would do.
How comforting it must have been for parents who had faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, genuinely to be able to commit the wellbeing of their little ones into the Saviour’s care and keeping. How comforting to intercede for them morning and night before the throne of grace.
Saving our children
Yet do we not still feel a sense of inadequacy, even now, as we endeavour to raise our children properly and make the right decisions for them?
There are other bombs besides those that fall from enemy planes, and it often feels as though we are raising the next generation in a minefield of Satan’s design, where every choice has its risks.
As parents, how do we make decisions for the greater good of our children, and particularly for their moral and spiritual wellbeing? We are concerned for their education; we worry about the social values they are imbibing and the permissive culture into which they grow. We question where we should live; become anxious about the company they keep; and endeavour to minimise the temptations to which they are exposed.
Though we long to see them saved, yet we cannot save our children. We know we cannot protect them from all the dangers they face. Much as we might like to evacuate them from under the onslaught of this evil and adulterous age, we know we cannot.
Encouragement for parents
How blessed we still are, who trust in Christ, to be able to commit them into the care of the Lord, to pray for them and know the Saviour hears our prayer. Some of the most encouraging passages of the Bible are for parents of children.
You who are parents or grandparents, take time to read again of the little children brought to Jesus and his response to them (Matthew 19:13-15); of the wild boy presented to the Lord by his father (Matthew 17:15); of the woman of Canaan who brought her daughter to Christ (Matthew 15:22-28).
Consider this last case. Here is a woman whose daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. She came to the right One! No one else could help her. The Son of God was manifested ‘that he might destroy the works of the devil’ (1 John 3:8). Love for her daughter compelled this mother to come to the Saviour, bringing her daughter’s need to him.
Notice, she asked the Lord Jesus to pity her daughter as an act of mercy to herself. ‘Have mercy on me’, was her cry, bowing to Christ as her Lord. Her need brought her to the Saviour and taught her how to pray. She, in turn, teaches every believing mother and father to follow her example.
Our need, God’s grace
The ground upon which she sought mercy was her need. The one in whom she trusted was the Lord Jesus Christ. In her inadequacy, she came to him for mercy. For the love of the souls of our children, let us do the same.
Here is the best choice we can make for our children. We can bring them to the Lord and explain our own inadequacy. Helplessness to preserve our own children from all physical and spiritual danger can be a cause of great heartache. Yet this teaches us to bring them to the Lord.
Our greatest pain will be our greatest blessing, if it brings us closer to the Saviour and teaches us to pray.