Socks, Sandbags and Leeches
Author Pauline Deeves researched the patriotic war work of children during the Great War for her new book
31 March 2016
I thought writing a book about children at home during World War One would be interesting. However, as I began my research I found I was in for two shocks. The first was how little had been recorded about the lives of children during the Great War. I expected piles of books and journal articles, and I was very disappointed. Thank heavens for Trove with its vast collection of newspaper articles. Thanks, too, for the Victorian School Magazine of those years, which recorded the contribution that those kids made. Those who wrote history a hundred years ago wrote of the deeds of men. A few women had a look in. Kids? Forget it!
Once I found some material, the second shock set in. Those kids didn't just ‘help a bit'. They were not bystanders. They were regarded as a vital part of the war effort whether they liked it or not. The Australian Government was 14 years old at the beginning of the war and it was broke. The children raised funds for soldier comforts and went without themselves. Schools sewed the sandbags that were sent to Gallipoli. Art, music and sports classes were abandoned very often so that war work could be done. There are letters from cranky army gentlemen warning teachers that the sewing done by their personnel was not up to scratch. There were equally cranky answers from teachers stating that their personnel were aged 7.
Kids collected old sheets and rags to be turned into bandages, knitted socks and scarves, and wrote letters to soldiers. They also collected leeches for hospitals to treat wounds. Boys would strip off and walk in ponds full of leeches. Girls would sit on the bank with a stick, a piece of string and a little bit of rotten meat tied to the end. Leech-hunting paid well so it was not a good time to be a girl. As a former teacher, I was especially saddened by the plight of country kids. The blokes went to war and the women, the old men and the kids were left to carry on. In most places, we are talking about farms without electricity or any petrol-driven device. Even then, many horses were required by the army. One school inspector reported that the children in his district always turned up for school, unless it was the season for planting, pruning, lambing, droving, shearing, fencing, calving or harvesting. These kids never caught up on their education. By the time the war was over, it was too late for them to go to school. I recall, even in the 1960s and 70s, country folk with few skills in literacy and numeracy as a result of the sacrifices they made during the Great War.
Socks, Sandbags and Leeches: Letters to My Anzac Dad contains many original images from those times and it has been a nice surprise to realise that, even though the book was originally aimed at readers 10 years and older, it has been a source of reminiscence for many older people. I have been told they are grateful that the sacrifices of that generation have been brought to light. It was they who went on to experience the Great Depression and World War Two. Their contribution deserves to be remembered.
Pauline Deeve's Socks, Sandbags and Leeches: Letters to My Anzac Dad was released by NLA Publishing in February 2016. It will be launched at the Library on 10 April.