Born before the war or during the conflict, children are the truly fragile population of the Great War, so much so that they will be the subject of considerable attention, particularly from the charitable works to which the men and women of high society devoted themselves.
The fate of children during the 14-18 war will depend on their status. For infants, for example, special attention will be devoted to their health care and to breast-feeding, thereby continuing the work that had begun before the war in order to combat, amongst other things, the widespread ravages of infant mortality. The Oeuvre de l’enfance (Children's Charity), section of the Comité National de Secours et d’Alimentation (National Relief and Food Committee), that will become the Office National de l’Enfance (National Children's Charity) after the war will help to save many young lives.
Some children living in the Belgian zone not occupied by the Germans, will be evacuated to the lines behind the fighting, to France or Switzerland, to school colonies set up within existing institutions or completely created just for them. There, they will spend many long months with only sporadic contact with their families, finally returning home in early 1919. For children who had lost their entire families, institutions are created or existing structures are enlarged. The children live in community there, with the aim of training them so that they will be held to find jobs upon reaching the age of majority, though some orphans are also adopted by distant family members. The international assistance for the parentless children of "Poor little Belgium" is very significant, and in Belgium as well, high society mobilises in order to provide children with an education, sometimes quite advanced.
Survival and material assistance for the children are therefore essential challenges, but childhood itself becomes the ideal subject for political statements. Education is also an important factor for protecting children during the war: the occupier often uses schools in order to accommodate troops in transit, and schools are also not spared with regard to the requisition of materials such as copper, or limitations with regard to school materials, for example the fabrics needed for the sewing classes for young girls.
The promotion of patriotic values and of material assistance for children in need become integral parts of the educational framework. Just as the image of the homeland becomes part of the childhood context, the image of children also becomes part of the war propaganda. Posters, the topic of conferences, fundraising, children are omnipresent as part of the iconography of the war, especially abroad… given the occupation.
How did children experience the war? What were the destinies of the youngest children in 14-18? This section is intended to introduce you to this important aspect.