When the men left to fight — Australian school life in the First World War

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During the First World War many Australian children had older brothers, fathers or uncles fighting in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and the Pacific. They lived with constant uncertainty about whether their loved ones were safe and well.

In many schools, students supported the war effort by fund-raising, making up comfort parcels for the servicemen and letter-writing. They were given unprecedented responsibility and autonomy in their communities to think creatively, step outside the classroom, work in teams and engage in community activities as never before.

Children bringing their tins of money to school assembly that they collected for the War effort, South Australia, c. 1917.Children’s fund-raising collections for the war effort bought to school assembly.
Source: State Library of South Australia
Attribution: State Library of South Australia Pictorial Collection PRG 280/1/15/949

The war bought with it teacher shortages across Australia as many young male teachers enlisted. School children were being taught by older or more competent students, by teachers fast-tracked through teacher training colleges, by retired older men and single women, and by women who had given up their teaching positions when they married.

Shortages of school materials —writing paper, inkwells, ink and chalk —were common.

Sadly, many children had to deal with the death or wounding of family members and friends. Often these personal family tragedies were part of larger community tragedies — a result of the major battles involving Australian forces.  However, grieving children were usually only allowed to be away from school for a short time resulting in many being absent without permission.

In response to the trauma, students and teachers made or bought equipment for local and overseas hospitals, supplied food and entertainment for the wounded servicemen in hospitals and helped out those families caring for men who had been disabled in the service of their county. 

Schools and communities also remembered the fallen in other ways. In South Australia they were remembered with ‘Violet Day’. As the first stanza of the poem Violet Verses, written by Mrs Alexandrina Seager in memory of her son George killed at Gallipoli, explains:

“Today we wear the clinging violet
In memory of the brave,
While ever thoughts of fond but proud regret,
Come surging wave on wave.”