Upon the birth of a child, each parent in Belgium is called on to visit the Office National de l’Enfance (National Children's Service), but how many of them know that these visits and weighings trace back to the very core of the subject of protecting children during the first world war? At the end of the 19th century, the protection of children becomes a priority for the Belgian elites. At the start of the 20th century, nearly 100 organisations exist at the aim of providing assistance to the youngest children. In 1903, the Ligue Nationale pour la Protection Maternelle et Infantile (National League for the Protection of Mother and Child) is created. In 1910, a law on child welfare is voted under the impetus of the wife of Justice minister Henry Carton de Wiart, Juliette Verhaegen, who will be extensively involved in actions benefiting children during the war. In fact, one of the provisions of this law is that a judge can strip a father of his authority (prevention of bad treatment), while minors can be judged before a specialised court.
In 1913, Brussels is the venue for the International Conference on the Protection of Children during which Mrs. Plasky, general inspector to the Ministry of Economic affairs, pleads eloquently for greater investment in the protection of children and, more specifically, regarding the need to provide education in the treatment required during a child's youngest years. All of these efforts converge on a successful decline of child mortality.
Emergence of the Protection of children
The start of the war and the deprivations resulting from the territory's occupation serve to increase the number of children experiencing physical or mental suffering. Every effort will then be made to save Belgium's child population. This motivation is twofold: concrete actions in support of the well-being of children, but also efforts to show Belgium's allies that it needs material help and food for its children.
On 20 February 1915, the Comité National de Secours et d’Alimentation (CNSA – National Relief and Food Committee) creates an Aid and Protection section for children's charities. The aim of this section will be to assist all of the children's protection charities spread throughout the occupied country, but there is so much to do that new sections are created for certain specific needs: canteens are opened for children said to be "feeble" (mentally handicapped), as well as other ones for future mothers. Still others focus on clothing, providing shoes, undergarments and clothing for needy youths. Dresses, socks, shorts and vests are categorized, sorted and distributed. Wastage and queue-jumping are strongly condemned. The potential recipients of these gifts must also be of good morals.
Petty jealousies and denunciations are frequent and cannot be avoided; still, efforts are devoted to making the most of what's available, while relying on local support. The problems facing children are truly considered in their entirety. Many committees quickly obtain the assistance of international support organisations including the very present "Commission for relief in Belgium", that provides gifts of materials and money. The committees make arrangements with schools for the distribution of food and clothing and, when coal is available, to provide hot water for washing little bodies and their clothing. Working together is not always easy. The relations with the occupier can sometimes be problematic: Juliette Verhaegen is arrested by the Germans on suspicion of promoting resistance under the cover of her charitable activities, but she is released a few months later.
Another important activity that will end up with its own department: a section dedicated to war orphans that is created in March 1915 in order to deal with the heart-wrenching needs of children who have lost one or both parents due to the war. First charitable organisations and later the State will set up means of support and accommodations for these children who have lost everything. This also allows educational specialists to experiment with new methods.
All of the efforts of these committees and their sub-sections focus on the care required by children. Child mortality becomes an enemy that has to be fought as hard as the occupier. This doesn't mean that the organisation is without its problems, however. Committees and charities often dispute the available aid, and who will have priority for its distribution. The disputes often conceal interpersonal disagreements but, in both good times and bad times, this policy bears fruit and we see good coverage of the occupied territory and, in particular, a remarkable decline of childhood mortality; this is particularly noteworthy in wartime given that, in general, the birth rate declined in Belgium throughout the entire 1914-1918 period.
This motivation is twofold: concrete actions in support of the well-being of children, but also efforts to show Belgium's allies that it needs material help and food for its children.
Children in the unoccupied zone: sent away for safety
Over in the unoccupied zone and La Panne, all emergency efforts are devoted to supporting the soldiers. Aid for children falls into the background, but without being entirely forgotten. Charitable organisations operated by female personnel devote themselves to helping needy children, but the conditions do not lend themselves to the emergence of one institution that would oversee all of the measures intended to help the young.
Schools are organised as well as possible, but the establishment of a lasting school system encounters difficulties due to the proximity of the front. Hospitals and orphanages in the unoccupied zone also look after children and are soon assisted by international personnel, but the front still receives priority with regard to any resources.
With the first battle of the Yser in October 1914, the idea of evacuating children begins to emerge: this is implemented in 1915, which sees the beginning of the epic efforts to transfer thousands of children to Switzerland and France, primarily to school colonies.
Many committees quickly obtain the assistance of international support organisations including the very present "Commission for relief in Belgium", that provides gifts of materials and money
A successful mission that must be kept up!
In conclusion, while this policy in support of childhood traces back to the pre-war years, the fact that Belgium was hurled into the conflict added a character of urgency to the issue, along with considerable symbolism. One almost gets the impression that each saved child is a child pulled from the clutches of death (or of the occupier, with the two images overlapping in the propaganda).
While acknowledging that an increase of childhood mortality was avoided by the implemented prevention measures, the efforts of childhood charities in Belgium in wartime can be considered a success despite the internal competition that sometimes arose between the various charitable works, and thanks to the material interventions of Belgium's allies, most notably the Americans. This positive assessment will also continue over time: in September 1919, a law gives official status to the institution that still currently exists as the Office National de l’Enfance/Kind en Gezin.
While acknowledging that an increase of childhood mortality was avoided by the implemented prevention measures, the efforts of childhood charities in Belgium in wartime can be considered a success