The School Children of WW1

Today school children are more likely to be found playing in the playground and studying for their next round of exams. But during the First World War children had to grow up quickly to help aid the war effort and many school leavers went straight into war work.

In 1914 there were just over five million children in primary school. Education was only compulsory from the ages of 5 to 12. Only half of the children stayed in school until the age of 14, with 8 per cent remaining until they were 16 and just 2 per cent staying in school until they were 18.

One hundred years later, the school leaving age is 16 in Great Britain and Ireland whilst those in England must remain in education or undertake an apprenticeship or training until they are 18.

Before WW1, the majority of school leavers took up paid employment to help support their families and to learn a trade or a skill that they hoped would be a job for life. Many children were used to hard work outside of school, helping the family business. Increasingly families tried to keep their children in school for longer, hoping that a better education would enable them to get a higher paid job when they left.

Depending on their age, not all children fully understood the horrors of the trenches and what the fighting involved. With no television and radio to inform the children, some teachers endeavoured to explain events to their pupils.

Children would listen to what their parents talked about, and to snippets read aloud from newspapers or children’s magazines. Often they would play games in the playground, taking sides and fighting over territory, adopting names of landmarks from news reports. If they asked soldiers returning home about the war, many chose to spare the children the details, warning them it was better not to know, whilst others would tell them everything in horrific detail.

Although the fighting took place overseas it still had a big impact on the children’s home lives.

Britain did not grow enough food to support its population and relied on imports which were severely affected by the war. Increasingly there were food shortages and eventually rationing was introduced.

In 1915 Britain began to run low on eggs and had to introduce egg substitutes and in 1917 there was a shortage of potatoes following a poor harvest. Both sugar and meat were rationed, with the government publishing alternative recipes and advertising ‘meatless days’.

To combat the food shortage, many schools dug up sections of their playgrounds or nearby fields and planted vegetables, for which the children were responsible. In 1918, children in rural communities were granted an extra 6 week’s summer holiday to help gather in the harvest.

In 1915 the Germans attacked the home front. On 19 January two Zeppelins flew over the coast of Great Yarmouth and dropped bombs. Over the following months, raids were made over Essex, Suffolk and even Tyneside.

On 31 May the first attack took place on London. As well as taking lives and damaging buildings, the raids had an extremely negative impact on morale. Whilst the Zeppelins provided large targets, filled with flammable hydrogen, they proved difficult to bring down. Raids were generally carried out at night —the almost silent airships avoiding detection.

When sighted in the daytime they caused great excitement, particularly amongst children, who would rush to see them, but they were deadly. On 13 June 1917 a daylight raid hit a primary school in London, killing 18 pupils.

Girls were encouraged to spend school hours knitting warm items for the soldiers at the front, such as socks, scarves and balaclavas. In schools situated close to military camps they even took on mending uniforms.

Children also saw more and more men leaving their homes and jobs to join the military services.

This meant that many factories were extremely short-staffed and desperately needed more workers to operate effectively. Of particular importance were factories making munitions and other items for the war.

With a school leaving age of 12 and the minimum age to join the army being 18, many of the school leavers went straight into war work.

By 1915, there were 8,000 boys employed in munitions in Woolwich Arsenal. It is estimated that 35 per cent of working boys and girls were undertaking war work. A big attraction was the wages, which increased the more that workers were needed, but the 12 hour shifts were hard and exhausting.

One major concern was what these children would do at the end of the war. Would the skills that they had learned no longer be needed when the factories closed? Would they have been better off staying at school?

In some communities, the need for workers was so high, that school-aged children were given special permission to work part-time alongside their schooling.

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