The exhibition "War in Short Pants, 14-18" is the fruit of a collaboration between CegeSoma and the Historische Huizen Gent and shows that the First World War was not only a matter for soldiers but also mobilised children. By means of audio guides, available in four languages, the exhibition takes us on a journey through the universe of seven boys and girls who experienced the conflict in occupied Belgium, but also in Russia, Germany, France, England, the Ottoman Empire or even in Australia.
Victims but also Actors
Their diaries, letters and drawings expose a war in which children are for the first time in the front line. Children and young people are no longer only victims of the conflict, they also actively take part by providing for their families, collecting money for the home country and even by trying to reach the war front. They are true actors in the History that is being written.
From the very first days of the war, the lives of the children were disrupted. Families were greatly affected by the men leaving for the front. Many women went to work outside their homes, which left the children with unprecedented autonomy but also with new responsibilities: taking care of the youngest, queuing for food or working on the family farm. Schooling was also affected by the war. In the combat zones, schools were destroyed or requisitioned. Many teachers were sent to the front. But schools tried to get the children involved in the war effort, sometimes in very concrete ways: the pupils were charged with the sale of war loans, growing vegetables or knitting pullovers for the soldiers.
Hunger is a recurrent subject in children's writings about the war. The impact of the food crisis was particularly harsh in central Europe, but also in occupied territories such as Belgium. In all belligerent countries, the public authorities undertook efforts, with varying success, to ensure the health of the children. The latter also adopted their own survival strategies that occasionally crossed the boundaries of legality: juvenile crime rates soared in 1914-1918.
At the Front
Some children even tried to reach the trenches and did not hesitate to lie about their age in order to fight alongside the adults. Most children were stopped at the recruitment offices, but several tens of thousands actually fought at the front. These child soldiers were sometimes celebrated as national heroes: their example was to stir up patriotism and create a sense of guilt among those men who did not fight. As propaganda put it, it is in their stead that the children die in no man's land.
Everywhere, the First World War put children at the forefront. This war heralded a 20th century in which young children had become a major part of conflicts: being targets of violence, witnesses of grief and, at the same time, a motivating force for national mobilisation. In other words, the war became “total war” in 1914 1918 and remains so today.