*** war and social upheaval: World War I displaced children orphanages

World War I: Displaced Children--Orphanages

Belgian orphans
Figure 1.--These Belgian orphans were photographed at the Alexandra Palace in London. Theu had been brought to Britain. We are not sure what happened after the War. Presumably they were repatriated.

The number of orphans was extremely high in Belgium and other areas where fighting took palace. Large numbers of orphanages were established to care for the children. Many were sponsored by religious orders. Funds were created in America, Britain, and other countries to support these orphanages. The Belgian and French orphanages received considerable publicity. They were also used in Allied war propaganda. Another problem was that while many children were not orphaned, there were millions without fathers. As the father in the 1910s was the principal, if not the only, income earner, this meant that millions of children were reduced to poverty or very close to it. Many had extended familes to support or least help support them. Many did not. Many of these children and their mothers lived in poverty. Some mothers in desperation abandoned theur children.

Orphans in Allied Countries

The number of orphans was extremely high in Belgium and other areas where fighting took palace. Although a smaller area of France was occupied by the Germans, there was extensive fighting in northern France, also creating many French war orphans. There were also large nimbers of prphasbs in Servis because othe invasion and occupation by Germany, Austria, and Bulgaria. There were also a huge number of orphans in Eastern Europe where the War was not confined to a relatively narrow trench line. A major problem was that men were a family's major provider. Civilian casualties in World War I were not nearly as high as World War II, but the loss of the father, eiher killed or severely wounded, often meant that mothers had no way of supporting the family.

Western front

The situation in Belgium and France is best known because their situation was widely reported in the press. It was also highlighted by Allied war propoganda. Large numbers of orphanages were established to care for the war orphans in both Belgium and France. Many were small logal orphanges cared for by a small group of nuns. Some Belgian children were apparently brought to Britain. Most of the assistance went to orphanages in Belgium and France. Many were sponsored by religious orders. A British nurse, for example, describes one of these small orphanages in Belgium, "There was a certain bazaar at Dunkerque, a big departmental-store of cheap goods, which was a perfect fairyland of toys and Christmas presents. Now, my friend and I were deeply interested in a little orphanage near us at Furnes, where twenty war-orphans, boys from three to fifteen years old, were cared for by nuns. So we went to the bazaar and bought things that boys like, also presents for our friends. Then the doctor who drove us in, took us to a hotel dinner. All these seem ordinary events, but to us they were delightful excitements after having lived in a kitchen and eaten bully beef for months. We were like girls from boarding-school let out for a holiday!" [Anonamous] Some of these prphanages were coeducational, perhaps an effort to keep brothers and sisters together. Clothing varied considerably from orphange to orphanage. Some children wore smocks, someimes as a kind of uniform. At others the vlothing varied from child to child. We suspect that here the funding was a majpr factor.

Eastern front

Fighting on the Eastern Front also created many orphans. Their plight was less well covered. Many countries had large numbers of orphans becuse of fighting in what is now Poland and Russia. Many orphans existed in Serbia after the Austrian invasion. We know less about Italy. Greece was a special case. Although there was limited fighting in Greece during the War, following the War as a result of a war between Greece and Turkey there were large numbers of orphans resulting from the Turkish expulsion of ethnic Greeks. The situation in Russia was especially dire, not only because of World War I, but the Civil War that followed the War. The Revolution demolished not only the existing Government structure, but also the religious orders that staffed many of the European.

Southern front

The southern front was initially the fighting between Austria and Serbia in the Balkans. The Germans reinforced the Austrians and when the Bulgarians entered the War launched a major offenive (October 1915). They defeated the Serbian Army which, however, did not surrender, but marched over the mountains and was evacuated to Corfu by Allied naval vessels. The Central Powers occpation of Serbia meant that there was no longer a Serbian Army in place to provide humanitarian assistamc. This created great hardshios for dispalced and orphaned choldren who had congregated around Serbian military camps. We have some information on efforts to save Serbian war orphans, at least the ones who managed to reach safty outside of occupied Serbia, The focus in the south than shofted to the Austrian-Italian border. Italy had declared war (May 1915). Greece declared war (June 1917), this reopened a Balkan front. The Allies landed troops along with the Serbian Army that had been evacuated in 1915. Italy entered the War (1915). Most of the Italian front was in the Alps along the northern border, lthough the Germas and Austriand broke through the Italin line at Caopretto (October-November 1917) and entered northern Italy. Thus there were Italian children orphaned and displaced.

Orphans in Central Powers Countries

We know much less about orphans in Austria-Hungary, Germany, Turkey, and other countries. Little actually fighting occurred on the territory of Germany and the other other Central Powers. Thus few children lost both parents. The loss of the father, however, meant that many mothers could not support their children. We know, however, little about the prphanages in these countries. Because Germany was generally seen as provoking the War, contributions in America and Britain were primarily directed given for the Belgian and French orphanages. We note some Dutch support for Austrian orphans, but for the most part these orphanages recrived much less assiatance. We know that some German children were sent to live on farms. [Seredy]

Charitable Support

Funds were created in America, Britain, and other countries to support these orphanages. These eggorts began in Britain, but soon spread to America well before the United States entered the War in 1917. Some of the charitable organizations set up in America included: the Comite Franco- Americain Pour La Protection des Enfants de la Frontiere, Children of the Frontier, French Relief Fund, War Orphans Committee, and Near East Relief, Constantinople. Women all over America took a special interest in the Belgian and French war orphans. One example was Mrs. Harriet Earling Dake (then Mrs. Fitch) who organized and directed the Fatherless Children of France project in the Milwaukee area. She was also instrumental in forming Foster Mothers of America, an organization designed to care for war orphans. For these activities, the French government awarded her the Legion of Honor medal. [Earling]


A HBC reader tells me that early Life Magazine articles had some images of European children showing period clothes. I think in 1917-18 they ran a series of articles on French children who had lost their fathers in the War. The magazine I think was asking for donations to help these families. The series contained lots of pictures of these, sadly mostly young, fatherless children. If anyone has access to a good University library, these Life Magazine images should be available. There apparently was a variety of boys clothes pictured.


Anonamous, "A War Nurse's Diary: Sketches from a Belgian Field Hospital (MacMillian: New York, 1918).

Earling, Albert J., 1848-1925. Papers, 1901-1948. Milwaukee Manuscript Collection BP.

Seredy, Kate. The Singing Tree (Puffin Newbery Library, Paperback, 1939).

CiH -- WW I

Navigate the CIH World War I Section:
[Return to Main World War I displaced children page]
[Return to Main war essay page]
[About Us]
[Aftermath] [Alliances] [Animals] [Armistace] [Biographies] [Causes] [Campaigns] [Casualties] [Children] [Countries] [Declaration of war] [Deciding factors] -------[Diplomacy] [Economics] -------[Geo-political crisis] [Home front] [Intelligence]
[Military forces] [Neutrality] [Pacifism] [People] [Peace treaties] [Propaganda] [POWs] [Russian Revolution] [Terrorism] [Trench warfare] ------[Technology] [Weaponry]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Return to Main World War I page]
[Return to Main war essay page]
[Return to CIH Home page]

Created: February 15, 2003
Last updated: 10:31 PM 11/7/2022