# School in wartime : teachers under fire, students in the middle

The war will overturn the organisation of schools in countless ways  - All rights reserved ©

The war will overturn the organisation of schools in countless ways - All rights reserved ©

In 1914, the concept of basic schooling is at a turning point. In May, Parliament adopts a reform that establishes mandatory schooling for children from 6 to 14 years of age, and establishes a fourth mandatory teaching stream based on technical subjects that can easily provide access to a job.

Young boys are destined for technical trades, and young girls for infant care or sewing. The disciplines are quite separate. School groups and co-ed classes are not yet on the agenda. At the head of the class is the "good teacher". The war will overturn scholastic habits and the lives of thousands of children and members of the teaching core. Below is a presentation of the war from a scholastic point of view.

Teaching before all else

When the war starts, just as the summer holidays are barely getting underway, these radical transformations of the educational setting are interrupted, with the war monopolizing the priorities: classes are suspended and Belgian troops are frequently stationed in schools. When it's possible to give lessons, the teachers focus on primary subjects (reading, writing, arithmetic). They also strive to maintain a degree of normality in an exceptional context. Well-known in the neighbourhood or village, the teacher has an enormous moral influence and it's no surprise that representatives of the teaching corps are often mentioned as hostages or official community contacts in the documents that describe the German atrocities in Belgium in August 1914. During the conflict, there are various possibilities: some teachers head to the front to fight, others flee abroad with their families. Replacements must be found for both of these categories, resulting in additional administrative work. The same is true for principals and directors: some will remain at their positions for the entire war, others leave and are replaced, most often, by one of the teachers or by a person from the community staff. As the war gets underway, student populations will be subject to the same hazards. This is realised at the start of the autumn term of 1914. But classes resume nevertheless, despite the uncertainty as to how long the conflict will last. The remaining teachers give the classical lessons on a primary level, in addition to the new technical learning stream. The lessons are often tinged with a good dose of patriotism, of course depending on the teacher's degree of tolerance relative to the occupier. The 1914 reform is applied: a fourth stream exists in most educational establishments, but its implementation is carried out with a certain degree of autonomy.

The assessment of the reform's implementation and the necessary adjustments to the system will come after the war. The social investment of schools is important, even vital: the most disadvantaged children are allowed to wash at school as long as the rooms are heated. Food and clothing are distributed, and the local sub-sections of the National Relief and Food Committee (CNSA) are alerted in the event of cases that deserve more in-depth attention. Certain schools, notably in Brussels, even offer to take in orphans in their classes if the latter have not been able to find a place elsewhere, and special attention is sometimes paid to the categories of young unemployed, as is the case here in school n° 5 in Laeken in 1915 :

With forced unemployment having reached the working class, many unoccupied young apprentices decided to return to school, and we welcomed them warmly”.

It's a way for these establishments to show their solidarity with the victims of the war, while also highlighting the social role of schools. But the war continues, and its effects are soon felt on the school population:

"Students are no longer able to devote sustained attention for the duration of their lesson, their minds are elsewhere. Some are dreaming, others are thinking about nothing, and still others are all worked up and unable to sit still, incapable of following the lesson for more than five minutes.”

This observation by the director of a primary school in Laeken in 1917 correctly summarizes the concrete problems faced by the teaching staff as the war drags on endlessly.

If the "events", as they're called in most of the correspondence in the scholastic field, are naturally mentioned in order to explain the lack of concentration of the children, the directors also point the finger at the weakened physical condition of the children, that does not allow them to keep up with the courses under ideal conditions. The weakness of the children is also one of the reasons given in order to explain the suspension or cancellation of gymnastics or swimming lessons, even if reading between the lines indicates that the possible presence of Germans in the swimming pools that will have to be used by pure and innocent children is another reason for cancelling these lessons.

In 1914, the concept of basic schooling is at a turning point. In May, Parliament adopts a reform that establishes mandatory schooling for children from 6 to 14 years of age, and establishes a fourth mandatory teaching stream based on technical subjects that can easily provide access to a job.

Difficult conditions

Not very sustaining food, a lack of lighting and sometimes of heating during the winter months often prevented children from doing their homework as well as would normally be the case."

School directors also complain about the regular absence of children who leave to replace their parents in the long food distribution queues and a few complaints regarding a lack of discipline and insubordination are attributed to the "events", but the general idea is certainly that the children are victims of this war and must be perceived as a group requiring protection over and above simple education. In schools in the occupied zone, the relations with the German authorities are not always easy: classes are often requisitioned since they can be used to accommodate large groups of soldiers, and they have washrooms. Mrs. Boquet, a teacher in Esplechin, notes in her private diary that troops set themselves up in her classroom on 13 February 1917, "25 soldiers per class". On the next day, she notes: "We're on vacation".

Schools are also affected by copper requisitions. The City of Brussels asks all school directors to draft a list of the materials carried off by the Germans in order, at a later time, to seek compensation. These lists are educational: in certain establishments, the occupier tracks down the slightest piece of copper, while in others, "it" touches almost nothing, and in still others, the school directors congratulate themselves for having hidden copper objects right under the noses of the Germans. The occupier, knowing full well that the messages passed between teachers are critical in its regard, sometimes take action when having to prevent all forms of resistance, even passive.

In June 1917, having occupied her class for four months by that point, Mrs. Boquet notes in her personal diary that the Germans have conveyed an order for the removal of all patriotic indications from her classroom. These patriotic signs are quite current in a scholastic setting: a carefully folded national flag is negligently placed on a chair during a group photograph, the courage of the King of the Belgians is mentioned in dictations and other works. The bravery of the men at the front is discussed, and a student having lost a parent is consoled with words about this brave person's sacrifice for the homeland. It's a way for the teaching staff to take the war to the occupier. But not all schools have to face the same issues: certain more distant establishments will see almost no Germans for the duration of the war, and will only have trouble with supplies. Everything obviously depends on the school's location and size.

A carefully folded national flag is negligently placed on a chair during a group photograph, the courage of the King Albert 1st of Belgium is mentioned in dictations and other works. The bravery of the men at the front is discussed, and a student having lost a parent is consoled with words about this brave person's sacrifice for the homeland. It's a way for the teaching staff to take the war to the occupier.

School in the unoccupied zone: school groups having to be evacuated

The arrival of troops in the region immediately disturbs the teaching. Groups of children are looked after by teachers or charitable organisations, but their work is carried out under extremely difficult – if not impossible – conditions. Premises are hard to find and/or destroyed, it's difficult to get the children together, and the lessons are often interrupted by alarms. Most of the children are therefore evacuated to France and Switzerland in order to receive their education there, and their schooling safe from any combat.

School in the after war period: teaching so as not to forget

After the war, the reforms initiated in 1914 must be resumed as soon as a "normal" administrative situation returns. In 1919, interest in pedagogical projects resumes. The fourth stream must more than ever be the subject of great attention, since unemployment is on the horizon and it's urgent to train young people so that they will have a chance to find a job. It will be an opportunity for certain educational specialists to implement innovative programmes.

Across all primary educational levels, learning about the Great War will be dominant with the primary subjects including the country's martyrdom and demonizing the occupier.

The teachers often recall the miserable manner in which the Germans – all Germans, whether officers or soldiers, soldiers or civilians – treated our confident country: violation of a sacred treaty, sudden invasion, massacres of harmless groups, countless acts of brutality, mass deportation of men and women, poor treatment of our prisoners in the Germanic hellholes, patriots shot for imaginary crimes, rivers of Belgian blood flowing on the battlefield, systematic destruction of our sources of wealth: factories, woods and forests, railways. Let our children never forget the details nor the German efforts to destroy the country's unity, and even their unexpressed intentions of striking it from the list of independent nations”.

This excerpt from a report written by the general inspector for primary education in Belgium, Léon de Paeuw, published in 1919, is significant for the spirit of revenge that's driving educators. With the war over, much greater freedom of speech returns, and during lessons, there is a renewed emphasis on the German atrocities, on the impact of the war on Belgium, and on the fact that not only is it necessary to remember the people who have fallen for the homeland and to keep their memory alive, but also to avenge their loss. In the after-war period, schools actively participate in patriotic parades and events. Now grown, students will retain particularly vivid memories that they will pass on to their children, with photos and documents in support. And if today's "schoolchildren" no longer systematically take part in parades in orderly rows, certain classrooms, particularly in small villages, answer the call even 100 years later when it comes time to commemorate the Great War. The 100 year anniversary is also an ideal opportunity for teachers to give a renewed focus on the subject, with visits to sites of the war and museums, and to encourage work on the story of a famous person from the school's community, along the lines of the young students in the classroom of Mrs. Charles in Villerot, who will give a performance on the life of Louis Fabry, the village priest who spent four years at the front, on 21 November 2014 at the Saint-Ghislain cultural centre.

In the after-war period, schools actively participate in patriotic parades and events.

In conclusion

School was an important place in Belgian communities before the war. More than just a place to learn, it was the key location in the lives of the children during the war, where they received important educational, moral and patriotic values, despite the resulting risk of sanctions or closings by the occupier. It was also the place where the children were able to receive food and clothing that they might otherwise have not been able to obtain. The war will also have an impact on the post-war school system: lessons will focus on remembering the war years, and the teachers that served at the front will be key figures for generations of students, especially during the Second World War. From the viewpoint of pedagogical development, while the war hindered the implementation of the 1914 reforms, that had to be restarted after the war, the ground was also fertile for the emergence of new pedagogical methods and, in some ways, the victory of education over destruction.

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