As of the autumn of 1914, with the belligerent troops now set in a front line that would move little for months, it was decided, for safety, to evacuate children in the unoccupied zone to the French countryside and to Switzerland, to protect them from the dangers existing in the unoccupied areas near the front. A mix of school and boarding school, the Belgian school colonies will be home to thousands of children for the duration of the war. But how to evacuate these children from the combat areas? Let's see how this rescue of the "children of the Yser" was carried out in practice.
Organisation and disorganisation
Parents initially hesitate to let their children leave, and to be separated from them. No one knows what the future will bring, and it's with apprehension and resignation that families watch the departure of the children, even though some of them recognise the necessity of this step. Each child receives identification papers with the usual identity information, as well as observations such as the child's religion or spoken language. Siblings are not separated and, in the event that they are, steps are taken in order to reunite them. The distribution of the children to the various establishments is not carried out immediately. In general, the children initially transit via Paris. Each step by train towards the designated colony is yet another occasion for a meal served in the station by local charities and, for the population, a chance to demonstrate their support for the young Belgians with flags and pennants. The colonies are set up in France, in areas far from the front, or in Switzerland. Varying locations are chosen for the colonies: private estates assigned for the occasion, pre-existing educational or charitable institutions, and even casinos are used in order to accommodate these colonies. Renovation and installation works are sometimes needed in order to accommodate these children under the best possible conditions, since the groups are large – up to several hundred children – and a significant infrastructure must be set up with the agreement of the Belgian government located in Le Havre, as well as the local authorities and personnel.
Each institute is independently operated: most of them receive support from the Belgian government located in Le Havre, as well as material aid and foreign personnel, primarily British or French. Soldiers are also assigned to the colonies: some of them look after management and logistics, but others have more educational roles.
The students must follow strict rules regarding regarding the daily schedule, and uniforms are mandatory. Religious education is respected, and all children must perform chores in order to assist the personnel, the numbers of which are often insufficient.
The management is all-powerful: it controls everything and has the last word with regard to discipline and punishments.
Other than the military personnel assigned to the colonies and the nuns sent by their orders, the colonies employ male and female teachers, themselves often Belgian refugees. They provide classical education and attempt, under circumstances that are not always ideal, to instill basic scholastic notions in the children.
There is no constraint regarding the civilian personnel. Anyone can resign if they wish, meaning that changes in the teaching staff are quite frequent.
The students range in ages from 6 to 14 years. Most of them are from Western Flanders, and speak Dutch at home. Not only are they torn away from their homes, but even from their culture and language. One child writes to his parents that because of his bilingualism, he is always sent to do the shopping in the village, but that this responsibility is weighing on him so much that he has decided to be assisted in this by his little brother.
Responsibility for the task at hand, the unrelenting time investment and material difficulties weigh on the personnel.
Life in the colony
In this day-to-day life, very concrete problems arise: organisational problems regarding supplies and heating, but also interpersonal problems. Responsibility for the task at hand, the unrelenting time investment and material difficulties weigh on the personnel. Certain people in the teaching staff and even the management throw up their arms and resign. Others focus needlessly on micro-managing the days of the children, and trivial things such as the exact hour for bedtime. Perhaps this is just a way of relieving some of the stress caused by the war.
During calmer moments, the Education minister recommends having the children write home at least once each month, which does not prevent parents from flooding the Belgian government in Le Havre with sometimes written poorly letters, asking for urgent information about their children. Any such news is difficult to obtain, thereby further worrying the parents. Families sometimes request a visit, or permission for the child to meet up with a family member living more or less far away from the colony. This authorisation is subject to the whim of the management, which refuses in one case, and accepts in another. Some totally refuse any visit or exit outside of the scholastic framework so as not to encourage jealousy. Others change their minds according to the hierarchical position of the person conveying the request. One teacher from another boarding school, wishing to take his niece on holiday, has his request rejected twice before finally having it accepted, since it was accompanied by a word from a high official at Le Havre (seat of the Belgian government). It is clear that the management teams are also not totally free, and that there is an ideological basis for their existence. The very existence of the Belgian school colony also makes it possible to organise visits by various local or Belgian dignitaries, while serving as a pretext for all kinds of collections and activities to assist with the institution's financing and promotion.
The very existence of the Belgian school colony also makes it possible to organise visits by various local or Belgian dignitaries, while serving as a pretext for all kinds of collections and activities to assist with its financing.
Chickenpox and fevers: something to worry about
Interpersonal tensions are compounded by the "classics" in the management of a community of children: epidemics of childhood or contagious illnesses (the famous "Spanish fever", as well as the measles, typhoid fever and the mumps), accidents and so on. Very accurate statistics are kept on the number of children who fall ill or are injured. Physicians visit regularly in view of the fears of contagion, and there's always at least one nurse in residence. The colonies are also a place where physicians can test their new remedies on a young and controlled population.
During periods of illnesses, the institutions are slow to communicate with parents, who complain bitterly, but once the epidemic has passed or the young patients have returned to health, the news resumes in a more regular manner. Sister Agnes, a nun looking after the children in the Malaise colony in France, writes on 2 February 1916:
“All of these young patients are doing much better, and I'm certain that the parents are anxiously waiting for the mailman to come by”.
Time to return
When victory finally comes, the Belgian government based in Le Havre looks after organising the return of the children to their respective homes. This will take some time because families have been scattered, and many homes have been destroyed. Children unfortunate enough to lose their parents during the war will be placed with family members or in specialised institutions.
Other types of colonies for specific groups will also be opened throughout Belgium.
Memories of their stays in the colonies will have different impacts depending on the experiences of each child, and his/her age during the years of the war. Many would later return with their own families to visit the places where, for some of them, they had spent four years.
Children saved but not without difficulties
While families are initially hesitant relative to these projects to evacuate children from the Yser, it must be recognised that this laudable initiative, however poorly implemented at times, certainly helped to save many children, if not from the direct violence of the war, but at least from its harmful physical and mental consequences. This period will be experienced differently by the children according to their history and the colony, but none will forget these years passed abroad during these strange enforced "holidays".