|The history books are full of the gallantry of that 1914-18 war; the young men who clamoured to answer Kitchener’s call to arms, only to die in the mud and carnage of Flanders’ fields; and the women, whose invaluable war work literally kept England on its feet. But there was another ’army’ at work during those strife-torn days, an army rarely mentioned in the history books and whose contribution to the war effort is to be found documented in, of all places, school log books. For this army was made up of the children of Britain. Ask anyone who was a child during the Great War and they will inevitably tell you that they did nothing to help the war effort, and yet, recorded in black and white by the Headteachers of schools all over the country, is the valuable contribution they made.
Looking at the war through the log books of just two village schools in Hampshire (Froyle & Bentley) we see that for a while there seems to have been little change in the everyday running of the schools, although everyone was caught up in the fervour of war. In 1914 and 1915 some 3 million men responded to Kitchener’s famous call of “Your Country Needs You” and the thrill of watching recruits and soldiers mustering in the market square was something the children never forgot. One old age pensioner, who was seven years old at the time, remembers “My mother took us down the street to witness the events. We heard the bagpipes, saw the kilted soldiers, but were disappointed because the sentries failed to challenge us.” For them the war was no more than a game, and when it meant having days off school so that troops could be billetted there it was a game that could go on for ever, as far as the children were concerned.
But by the beginning of 1916, when the introduction of conscription meant that more and more fathers left the villages and, one by one, families in the tightknit communities were touched by tragedy, it became obvious to the older children, at least, that this was no longer a game. As their mothers took over the work previously done by the men, the children in the schoolrooms began to do their bit to ‘keep the home fires burning.’ In June 1915 a National War Loan Scheme had been set up to help pay for the war and many War Loan Savings Associations were formed in the schools so that the children could contribute. Every child participating was given a subscription book and, when their savings reached the grand total of 15/6d, they received one War Loan certificate. There was a great feeling of achievement in acquiring these certificates; school holidays were given whenever a particular goal was attained and the event recorded with pride in the school log book.
And this from a village school of just 100 children! Besides the War Savings Association small collections were made for worthy causes.
This particular fund, presided over by Lady Smith-Dorrien, was for the welfare of horses in wartime and would have been close to the hearts of these country children, many of whome had already seen their farm horses comandeered for use at the front. School concerts were held on a regular basis for the wounded soldiers and sailors housed in temporary hospitals in the villages and the men often reciprocated by visiting the schoolrooms with exciting tales from the front line. Schoolgirls joined their mothers in the knitting craze that swept the nation. In his book “A Social History of England”, Asa Briggs tells us that 1,742,947 mufflers and 1,574,155 pairs of mittens were made for the soldiers. The number of socks is not quoted but at one stage so many had been knitted that the government felt it necessary to draw up guide lines regarding production! At Christmas food parcels containing such essentials as rice, quaker oats, potatoes, sugar and soap were sent to the troops and many pensioners still treasure the certificates they received in recognition of their small, but valuable, contribution. But as 1916 drew to a close there was growing concern over the shortage of food in Britain. German submarines had sunk some 632,000 tons of shipping in the last four months of the year and, on February 1st 1917, their declaration of unrestricted warfare on all merchant shipping sailing to and from Allied ports forced the government to resort to vigorous economy measures. Voluntary rationing was introduced with consumers asked to limit themselves to 4lbs of bread a week, 2lbs of meat and lb of sugar. The King’s Proclamation on May 2nd exhorting his subjects to “.... reduce the consumption of bread in their respective families by at least one fourth of the quantity consumed in ordinary times” and “....abstain from the use of flour in pastry...” was read in school and the children asked to pledge their support. Badges were worn by those who had made a special effort to economise. With food in such short supply Britain suddenly became a nation of gardeners. During the first half of 1917 every available piece of land came under the spade and by May it was estimated that some 500,000 allotments and vegetable plots were under cultivation. “Britain has only two passions” wrote a contemporary, “to thrash the Germans and cultivate its soil.” The children soon got down to work.
While the boys toiled in the allotment the girls were formed into blackberrying parties to provide jam for the soldiers. The Board of Education thought the work so worthwhile that they gave the children three half days a week simply to pick blackberries and take them to the collecting depots set up in the villages. Here they received 3d per lb for their trouble, although it is not clear whether the children or the school kept the proceeds. An interesting side-line to all this food production was the encouragement given by the education authorities to the destruction of that gardener’s enemy, the yellow cabbage butterfly! In Hampshire schools, prizes were awarded to the boys who had killed the largest number and by their efforts some 7000 butterflies were accounted for during the summer of 1918. The boys were encouraged to ‘continue their good work, particularly in this time of food crisis.’ In May 1917 a National Egg Collection had brought a similarly enthusiastic response from local children with one small school collecting no less than 940 fresh eggs for distribution amongst the wounded. Later that same year it was the turn of the Admiralty to call upon the services of the country’s youngsters. It was reported in the press that an urgent application had been made by the Admiralty with regard to the collection of acorns for ‘a certain government manufacture’ and it was hoped that the education authorities would assist by allowing the children to participate. Our village schools quickly took up the challenge.
Although the Headmaster believed the acorns were destined for munitions manufacture the Imperial War Museum has no record of them being used for anything other than feeding pigs. Horse chestnuts, on the other hand, were certainly used as a substitute for butyl alchohol and acetate in the manufacture of gun cotton. So what this ‘government manufacture’ was we do not know, only that the Admiralty got all the acorns they needed and the children felt they were helping the Armed Services. While the Headmaster encouraged his school to do their bit for Britain he was more than aware of his own duty to his country.
At last, in September of 1918, he received his call up papers and although his length of service was short the pride with which he made the following entry in his log book still shines through:
So drew to a close the war to end all wars. As they sang and danced at the peace celebrations in July 1919 little were those village children to know that in just 20 years they would once more receive the call to serve their King and country; but this time the sacrifice and the glory would be theirs.