It's characteristic of toys that they transcend time and eras, and are inspired by them. The 14-18 period is no exception to this rule. Of course, children had games and toys, but clearly not with the proliferation that we see today. During the war, especially in non-occupied countries, we note the arrival of "war toys" that are tied in with the circumstances of the war itself, but still with some nuances: alongside these little soldiers, very stylized and drawn by true artists, we also find pretty dolls, construction blocks, puzzles and primitive miniatures representing the landscapes as they existed before being touched by the effects of the war. In occupied Belgium, these games and toys are produced by persons directly affected by the conflict and they convey a message of hope intended for the children that they're supposed to distract, along with a certain element of passive resistance to the occupier, all the while also providing an occupation. Toys have a symbolic function as well as their usual function.
War is not a children's game
Before the war, there were few toy factories in Belgium. They did nevertheless exist, and primarily focused on the manufacturing of dolls.
The country's invasion by German troops brings with it social and economic misery. Children, who already do not have as many toys as one might think, will suffer from the consequences of the war and, alongside considerations regarding their food and clothing, the manufacturing and distribution of toys will be organised as part of the charitable efforts intended for children, while also primarily helping to provide workers with an occupation.
During the war, especially in non-occupied countries, we note the arrival of "war toys" that are tied in with the circumstances of the war itself, but still with some nuances: alongside these little soldiers, very stylized and drawn by true artists, we also find pretty dolls, construction blocks, puzzles and primitive miniatures representing the landscapes as they existed before being touched by the effects of the war.
The Oeuvre Belge du Jouet (Belgian Toy Charity)
The Union Patriotique des Femmes Belges (UPFB – Patriotic Union of Belgian Women), cognizant that children need to play and of the fact that unemployment is harmful for the Belgian population, and more specifically for wounded soldiers or invalids who cannot, in occupied Belgium, take up arms at the front, creates a section exclusively for the manufacturing of toys: this is the Oeuvre Belge du Jouet (Belgian Toy Charity).
This organisation will look after distributing toys manufactured in various parts of the country, and especially in Liège, Brussels and Louvain. In Liège, the “Jouet Liègeois” plant quite logically specialises in toys with a regional connotation. In Brussels, "Le Jouet Belge", in Louvain, Countess Jean de Mérode creates the “Remdéo“, an anagram of her family name, and on the national level, the "Fa-be-jo" (Fabrique Nationale du Jouet) takes part in this same effort. The Countess of Mérode's toy company will operate almost exclusively for the Oeuvre Belge du Jouet and primarily manufacture dolls for which the porcelain heads come from the De Fuisseaux enterprises previously established in Baudour, that had been destroyed by the occupier.
The toys produced by these workshops will go to orphans and needy children, and will primarily be distributed on holidays such as Saint Nicholas Day or Christmas.
This organisation will look after distributing toys manufactured in various parts of the country, and especially in Liège, Brussels and Louvain.
Toy soldiers and wooden heads
The production of toys also involves the manufacturing of wooden toy soldiers. The designs for the little soldiers are made by artists including Amédée Lynen. These are very stylized sketches that have made their way down to us across time, and that show us soldiers with a very square legs, somewhat unreal, wearing pre-war uniforms.
Compared with the other countries at war, in occupied Belgium, fairly few "toy soldiers" are manufactured, but rather "pacifist" toys that make no reference to the war. There are two reasons for this: The desire for children – confronted each day with the war or more specifically with its collateral effects – to think of something else and also the fact that these toy plants are located in the territory occupied by the Germans, that could see excessively pronounced support for the Allied troops in any toys that would be too expressive.
For little girls, dolls are manufactured so that they can imitate their mothers and prepare for their future role as mothers. Unfortunately, we now find a fairly few examples of these dolls, which have a great symbolic and historical value.
Alongside tools, games are also developing. Most of the time, these are boardgames in which the pieces move about based on a throw of the dice. It isn't so much the subject of the game that is based on the war, as its decor: regional or national decors. In Belgium, the allusions will be less obvious than in the allied countries, since the occupiers are watching, but games of snakes and ladders using the key figures from the conflict will be widely disseminated after the war.
Within this cornucopia gathered over the years by Paul Herman, the specialist in the history of games in Belgium, there are more than just toy soldiers, dolls and snakes and ladders. One can also find a fair in which little characters move around or, more indicative of a certain propaganda message, the reconstruction of the Diksmuide beguine convent that was destroyed during the war.
It isn't so much the subject of the game that is based on the war, as its decor: regional or national decors. In Belgium, the allusions will be less obvious than in the allied countries, since the occupiers are watching, but games of snakes and ladders using the key figures from the conflict will be widely disseminated after the war.
At the front: card games
Games are also played at the front, when time, the enemy, manoeuvres and the weather will permit it. The soldiers primarily play cards. Easy to carry and not requiring large investments, cards can be quickly put away when it comes time to go back on the attack.…
The First World War in contemporary games
The First World War is also the subject of modern games and toys. While the Second World War gets primary billing within the ranks of today's very popular video games based on historical events, the First World War can also be found in certain flying games (Red Baron) or strategy games such as Trenches, World War One or Victoria. The representation of the First World War in its immediate aftermath was considerable, though lesser when compared with the second war: toy soldiers, parlour games, and not to mention the famous little figurines of soldiers manufactured from shrapnel picked up on the battlefields and sold to tourists by the late Ivan “Schrapnel Charlie” Sybnnaeve, a well-known character in Western Flanders who passed away in 2012.
As a kind of conclusion…
During the First World War, toys provide a moment of positive distraction to children living in a country at war, and occupied besides. Even more so, the main function of toys was to occupy the men who are "stuck" in Belgium.
Toys are also useful for conveying a fairly subtle patriotic message to all generations, while bypassing the occupier's censorship. After the war, toys are used to promote the winners in both parlour games and toy soldiers. And while these days, the much "closer" Second World War is used as the topic of games, the first worldwide conflict is nevertheless not entirely absent from toy store shelves.