# Orphans in 14-18 : the legacy of war

Belgian orphans in Paris on their way to school colonies  - Wikimedia-License Creative Commons ©

Belgian orphans in Paris on their way to school colonies - Wikimedia-License Creative Commons ©

"The State did not want the heirs of our heroes and innocent victims of war to be given over to discouragement and misery. It intended to ensure that they will have a respectable fate and decent future."

From its first hours, the war created thousands of orphans in Belgium. From a numerical viewpoint, they are far fewer than in the other countries involved in the conflict, but they are the subject of all kinds of attention from private charities and the State. Having lost one or both parents, these children will not necessarily have the same fate depending on their situation and whether they are orphans of soldiers or civilians. In a society in which the transmission of educational values is the father's duty, the Belgian State will entirely assume its responsibilities and implement adequate measures to provide these children with protection and a future.

A future for the "kids without parents"

On 16 March 1915, the CNSA (National Relief and Food Committee) created the Oeuvre nationale des orphelins de guerre (National war orphans charity) in order to help children who had lost their parents due to the war. This section was created with the support of the very active Commission For Relief in Belgium (CRB). In fact, when it comes to supporting charities that look after orphans, the Americans answer the call.

The iconic image of the Belgian orphan will make its way around the world, in order to show everyone the sad effects of Teutonic cruelty, and to gather funds. In France, Great Britain and the United States, countless soirées are dedicated to their cause, with special collections at every mass. These poor children almost become a fashion accessory, with everyone wanting a protégé: American high society women, just like with the soldier-penfriends and refugees, almost each want to have "their" own war orphan or to take care of a European orphanage. Embassies, especially the US Embassy, receive requests along these lines. The intentions are naturally good, but these benefactors do not always grasp the delicate questions implied by adoption: very young children cannot provide information on possible surviving family members that could accommodate them, the oldest are already too accustomed to their country and families often prefer children of lower ages. Lovely stories also circulate in the international press about Belgian children adopted against all odds by distant family members in England. True or fabricated, these stories all have a single aim: to touch the international community with regard to the fate of the children.

Others prefer to send gifts and parcels for these unfortunate children. One Canadian lady, sending clothing in 1915, asks "that the child, later on, will indeed know and sometimes remember that, when he or she was small, a woman in Canada wanted the best for him or her. Also, if it were possible, I would like the child to be called Jérôme or Clara."

Large-scale charitable campaigns are carried out within the occupied territory: on 8 September 1917, a large garden party for the benefit of orphans is organised at the Château de Val Duchesse, in the beautiful Brussels suburb, with the blessing of the Marquis of Villalobas, Spain's plenipotentiary minister in Belgium and a great benefactor of Belgian civilians. The entry cost is high (20 francs), but totally for the benefit of the young unfortunates. It's an ideal opportunity for the more fortunate to reach into their pockets. In the small shops set up for the occasion, cards and small objects are sold for the benefit of the orphans. The souvenir album sold in 1918 indicates that "For a few moments in the serene beauty of a seductive scene, people came to "forget" while taking part in a good action".

For fatherless children left only with their mothers, the "Oeuvre" will provide them with material support but also orientation with regard to the necessary choices, in the absence of the deceased father, regarding the child's future. It must be recalled that this is a period during which the father of the family has full powers over any education-related decisions. The fact that the mother of the family will be lost in view of the choices having to be made for the future is something that regularly comes up in the final letters that the condemned leave for their families: recommendations of all kinds, indications of the names of colleagues, friends and family members who will be able to provide good advice, or a job. Society only has relative confidence in the mother, or rather, it is unconsciously felt that she does not have all of the necessary tools for ensuring the future of her children. The Oeuvre is therefore there to provide the widow with material support, often in the form of a job, but especially to advise her regarding the future of the children.

But for a child having lost both parents and with no one left to take in this child, measures were taken to ensure placement. A true paternal substitution enterprise takes shape. In the autumn of 1914, "Foyers des orphelins" (Orphans' homes) are created, genuine small cities within the city where children find shelter and education according to the standards of the early 20th century.

On 16 March 1915, the CNSA (National Relief and Food Committee) created the Oeuvre nationale des orphelins de guerre (National war orphans charity) in order to help children who had lost their parents due to the war.

The institutions: supporting and educating

If hospital institutions such as the famous Ocean Hospital are often the first to receive orphans or children temporarily separated from their parents, the children are then placed in orphanages. Homes for orphans are created starting in the autumn of 1914, while the existing accommodation structures are expanded. The Belgian State increases its aid and also benefits from the international support stimulated by the messages regarding orphans. For example, the American Delta Gamma sorority takes the Marchiennes orphanage under its wing, regularly sending funds and encouragement until such time as the local authorities can take over. For this, it will be decorated with the Order of Queen Elisabeth (of Belgium). Thanks to its help, it is thought for some time that a new section should be opened in the Charleroi suburbs, considering the extent of the demand. The painful question of war orphans is also an opportunity for educational specialists, already very involved in the scholastic field, especially in Brussels, to develop innovative educational methods in the field.

Insofar as possible, the children must remain in the region of their birth, where they lived with their parents

Brussels high society, already very involved in charities looking after orphans, takes hold of the issue of war orphans as of the start of the war and, under the impetus of educational specialist Ovide Decroly, homes for children are opened first in Uccle, then in the rest of the capital and country. As such, in March 1917, at number 92 in the rue de Ruysbroeck in Brussels, an institution for "older boys" opens its doors.

An inquiry is first held with the family or with the people accommodating the child. The child may stay in this familiar environment, but if this isn't possible, he or she will be placed in a specialised institution.

The child's sex and age is the final placement consideration. Boys over the age of 12 years are separated from the other children (mixing of the youngest children is encouraged), as are the children receiving their education in Dutch.

They are assigned a “mother”, a term used to identify the reference adult who is a woman in most cases, who will monitor them during their stay in the institution and will be able to identify their specific needs and problems. The “decrolyan” notion of education is quite avant-garde, focusing on the child's interaction with his/her living environment. In addition to the basic education of the children who, like other children in Belgium, are taught the basic operations of reading and writing, the children are helped to acclimate to a calm and natural environment, while their interaction with this setting is encouraged: small animals and vegetable gardens are present within the grounds and are the subject of lessons, while excursions to the park, creative workshops and magic lantern sessions are organised. The older children are also assigned to helping and supporting the younger children, especially during meals and bedtime. It is thought that this will help the young girls to familiarize themselves with their future role as mother.

While the orphans are provided with accommodations and care, thought is also given to their future: the orphans must be able to learn a trade, preferably manual, that will provide them with access to the working world. The final year of school is used for this purpose. Young girls are taught the art of sewing and housekeeping. Insofar as possible, the personnel tries to place these young people at the end of their education.

The painful question of war orphans is also an opportunity for educational specialists, already very involved in the scholastic field, especially in Brussels, to develop innovative educational methods in the field.

Orphans after the war

In June 1919, the articles of association of the Oeuvre Nationale des Orphelins de Guerre (O.N.O.G. - National War Orphans Charity) are set down by law. Parliament reasserts its desire to ensure compliance with the civil code legislation on family guardianship and its mission to support, place and defend war orphans.

Access to educational establishments at no cost is made available to orphans of soldiers and civilians, and to the children of war invalids with at least 60% disability. In Ménin, an establishment for girls between six and 18 years of age, but no more than 10 years old upon their arrival, opens its doors. An assessment report is prepared every three months, and the parents and guardians are ensured of the severe discipline, which is not unusual in educational settings at the time.

To avoid unhealthy competition between the categories of orphans, lawmakers decide to make no distinction between the categories and to group the aid intended for them within a single institution.

Public opinion seems not to have forgotten the young orphans:

It's comforting to think that the sacrifice of our heroes was not totally in vain, and that men of good heart freely apply themselves to the noble task of replacing, in his role as affectionate advisor and educator, the father now sadly lost forever", the Dernière Heure comments on 12 April 1921, with the article's author asking for the enlightened moral support of veterans in order to ensure the continuity of military camaraderie.

As an example of the internal disagreements within the organisations working to provide these orphans with a future, we note that in 1924, a delegate from the Fédération des Invalides de Guerre (Federation of War Invalids), specifically Captain La Fontaine, was designated to participate in the works of the ONOG, but that 10 or so years later, the same Federation regrets that it is not represented within the ONOG since "no one would dare to dispute that war invalids have the right to cooperate in the education and instruction of the children of their comrades killed in combat or who have died since the armistice.” Even the question of orphans, that should encourage unanimity, sometimes brings to light rivalries and controversies as to how this question should be managed.

To avoid unhealthy competition between the categories of orphans, lawmakers decide to make no distinction between the categories and to group the aid intended for them within a single institution.

A word in conclusion

The true advance in this tragic story of the war orphans is that of the State truly assuming a role that had previously most often been left to private initiatives. It's as though this "war etiquette" provided society with the perfect pretext for getting involved in the education and future of parentless children. In addition to the above children, there are also the ones who were separated from their families during the war and who found at least one family member during the war or thereafter, as well as the many orphans who lost one or both parents after collateral damage from the war (illness, accidents…), and who are not included within the ranks of war orphans in the strict sense of the term. Mention must also be made of the unfortunate fate of children who were already orphans before the war, and who woluld have to live through it while also relying on charities. While praise is merited for the Belgian State's efforts to come to the assistance of orphans and their families, it must be recalled that they will bear the lifelong painful scar of having lost their parents as a direct consequence of the First World War.

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