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Young People and the War

It was important for children to understand why the war effort was important. In Britain’s case this involved teaching the importance of the Empire, both at home and at school. Young people were encouraged to do their bit for the war, whether at home, school or even on the front line.


© IWM Art q 30965. girl guides practising semaphore signalling in britain.

War in the Classroom

Schools and teachers played an important role throughout the First World War. They tried to minimise the physical and psychological threats to their pupils’ safety whilst teaching them that the Empire was something worth saving, and stressing that Britain was fighting for the rule of law and for democracy. Teachers were expected to change their curriculum to one that encouraged patriotism and inspired young to help with the war effort at home.

Schools kept animals and planted gardens in order to encourage children to learn how to farm, for example teaching girls to make jam and to preserve fruit and vegetables for the tougher months. Seeing the benefits, the British Government was keen for schools to expand their gardening programmes. By October 1915 there were 56,037 children receiving instruction in practical gardening in 3,129 school gardens. 


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Both the girls and the boys learnt first aid during the war years. They were often employed by hospitals, local authorities and central government.


Kaiser Bill – Children’s Song

Kaiser Bill went up the hill

To see the British Army.

General French jumped out of a trench

And made the cows go barmy.


Preparing for War

Boy scouts were taught how to shoo at rifle ranges, a precautionary measure so they were ready to be called upon to defend Britain if the German army invaded. The War Office used Boy Scouts to guard important places, such as stretches of coastline and railway lines, and taught them to send semaphore messages using small flags. After a long night of guard duty the Scouts were sometimes allowed the following day off school.

 Girl Guides were expected to be able to help the injured after an invasion and learn useful occupations and handiwork whilst still keeping their womanliness. Although their training was expected to be done in a feminine way the Girl Guides adopted uniforms and even had military ranks, which the Boy Scouts did not have. Some of the girls’ activities, such as stealing rival troops equipment, had to be hidden from the Guiding Headquarters for being too ‘unladylike’.


Boy Soldiers

Officer (to boy of thirteen who, in his effort to get taken on as a bugler, has given his age as sixteen). “ Do you know where boys go who tell lies?” Applicant, “to the front sir.”

For years children had been taught that the Empire was worth protecting and now boys who wanted to fight had their chance to protect it. Lots of young boys found the prospect of fighting for their country exciting and lied to recruitment officers about their age.

Cecil Withers joined at 17 and gave a false name and address so that his true age could not be discovered. He then came to realise that if he were to die in battle his family would never be informed. His family thought the same and sent a message through The Times in 1916. The message read ‘Cecil. C. W. – All’s well, will not apply for the discharge if you send full address; past forgiven – Father’

The army employed boys as drummers and buglers, and very often they were sons of soldiers. In 1914 the War Office ordered all regiments to leave their boys at home, unlike the South African War (1899-1902), as they were unable to contribute to the campaign. The same did not apply in the Royal Navy, and one boy seaman, Jack Cornwell, won the Victoria Cross at Jutland in 1916 at the age of 16.