The First World War affected all of British society. Over 5.7 million men volunteered or were conscripted to fight. Millions of civilians helped the war effort by working in industry, agriculture or in jobs left open when men enlisted. But children also rallied to 'do their bit'. Here are some of the ways that children contributed to the war effort.

Private papers

1. Volunteering

Documents relating to his career in the civil service, 1901 - 1939, notably as Private Secretary to seven Secretaries for War.

Children, like adults, were caught up in war fever after hostilities broke out in August 1914. Many wanted to join the Army, including nine-year-old Alfie Knight from Dublin. Alfie wrote this letter to Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener, volunteering his services as a front-line despatch rider. In a reply sent by his private secretary, Lord Kitchener thanked Alfie for his offer, but explained that he was 'not yet quite old enough to go to the front'. Some boys succeeded in joining the Army by lying about their age, which was sometimes knowingly overlooked by recruitment officers. Alfie's letter reads:

'Dear Lord Kitchner,

I am an Irish boy 9 years of age and I want to go to the front. I can ride jolley quick on my bicycle and would go as despatch ridder. I wouldint let the germans get it. I am a good shot with a revolver and would kill a good vue of the germans. I am very strong and often win a fight with lads twice as big as mysels. I want a uneform and a revolver and will give a good acount of myself. Pleese send an anencer.

Yours affectionately

Alfie Knight'

Souvenirs and ephemera

2. Making children 'fighting fit'

This doll, called the 'Unconscious Doll Exerciser', is modelled upon a First World War soldier. It was invented by a bodybuilder to help British children build up their physical strength through play. The Times reported in 1915 that profits from the doll's sale would be given to the British Red Cross and the Order of St John.


3. Boy Scouts

The Boy Scouts' Association was one of the first youth organisations to provide practical assistance to the British war effort. The Boy Scouts in this photograph are guarding a railway bridge and tracks in Britain. Scouts also guarded telephone and telegraph lines, railway stations, water reservoirs or any location that might be militarily important. From late 1917 many Scouts assisted with air raid duties, including sounding the all-clear signal after an attack. Some Scouts were even trained in fire fighting. The Scout movement's handbook, published before the war broke out, instructed all Scouts to 'be prepared…to die for your country if need be'.


4. Girl Guides

The Girl Guides Association was formed in 1910. During the First World War, Girl Guides took on many roles. They packaged up clothing to send to British soldiers at the front, prepared hostels and first-aid dressing stations for use by those injured in air raids or accidents, tended allotments to help cope with food shortages, and provided assistance at hospitals, government offices and munitions factories. The Girl Guides in this photograph are on a drill, carrying a stretcher and other equipment in readiness to provide emergency help after an air raid.

Uniforms and insignia

5. Sea Scouts

Like Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, Sea Scouts were part of the larger Scouting Movement. This jumper was worn by a Sea Scout during the First World War. During the war, Sea Scouts were part of a network of observers that stood watch on the coast in anticipation of German air attacks or a possible invasion. The badge just below the neck of this jumper was awarded for coast-watching.


6. Working the land

Germany's campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare threatened the vital shipping which carried supplies of food and raw materials to Britain. At times during the war, food was in short supply. British officials made public appeals for people to grow their own fruit and vegetables to help cope with shortages. Many young Britons played their part. The Girl Guides in this photograph are tending to an allotment in the later years of the war. Rationing was introduced in 1918.


7. Raising money

Children across Britain gave their pocket money to the war effort. In this photograph, the students of Gibbons Road School in Willesden, London, are lining up to donate to a war savings association. The children raised money for a number of charities, including St Dunstan's Hostel for blinded ex-servicemen, the Blue Cross for sick and injured animals, and local military hospitals.


8. Salvaging

Children also collected scrap metal and other essential materials that could be recycled or used for the war effort. In this photograph, children from Buckinghamshire are salvaging valuable materials at a local depot.


9. Working in war industries

The boys in this photograph are young workers at a British aircraft factory. During the First World War, factories employed women, refugees, volunteers from the Empire, men too old to be conscripted and children. Children younger than the school leaving age of 12 also worked in factories or on farms. In some cases, a child's earnings could be a helpful addition to a family's income. In 1917, Education Minister H A L Fisher claimed that as many as 600,000 children had been 'prematurely' put to work.


10. Propaganda

This poster was the idea of Arthur Gunn, director of the London-based firm that printed it. Although he enlisted shortly after the poster's publication in 1915, Gunn had felt guilty about not having volunteered. He recognised the persuasive potential of a child's question to a 'shirker' father, but the use of guilt and shame to encourage enlistment proved unpopular.

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