During both world wars the British Isles were under attack, which meant that the civilian population as a whole, as well as the soldiers fighting overseas, found themselves in some ways ‘at the war front’.
‘Zeppelin raids on London … did have the effect of drawing everybody into the war.’
World War One (the Great War) is usually remembered as mainly a soldiers’ conflict – with six million men mobilised to fight overseas, and the number of military casualties very high compared to those of civilians – but nevertheless the Zeppelin raids on London in April 1915 did have the effect of drawing everybody into the war. And as it progressed, the entire nation’s population and resources were harnessed to the war effort in one way or another, so most people came to feel involved in the conflict.
Wearing a uniform of some kind (whether in the forces or as a male or female police officer, postal worker or bus conductor) was an obvious way of contributing, but civilians working in a factory making uniforms, guns, ammunition, tanks or ships had every right to feel they were contributing as much to the war effort as a man with a gun. So, too, had dockers and miners.
Families with men at the front certainly felt part of the war, whilst clergymen who comforted the bereaved, or journalists who wrote stirring patriotic editorials, likewise had a key role as opinion formers.
Then, when food rationing was introduced in January 1918, following the German submarine blockade of 1917, previously housewives were not involved, as they eeked out their modest supplies of sugar and meat (the first two items to be rationed), could also feel they had a part to play. By this time the whole of Britain, effectively, was the Home Front, and the citizens collectively at the front.
Lloyd George was one of the first to see that the home and overseas fronts were inter-related. He once quipped, ‘We are fighting Germany, Austria and drink, and as far as I am concerned, the greatest of these foes is drink’.
In four interrelated spheres of the Home Front, the involvement of British society in the war effort had far-reaching effects on the country, though the degree to which the war speeded up pre-existing social pressures remains debatable.
First, World War One had an enormous impact on living standards, both in terms of poverty and health, improving the lot of many of the nation’s poorest citizens. Next, through their war work, women gained a profile and rights in society that had previously been denied to them.
Thirdly, by 1918 the bargaining hand held by trades unions of organised labour were considerably strengthened by the key role they played in negotiating the pay and conditions of their workers in manufacture and production for the nation’s wartime benefit. Finally, in general, the Home Front idea was a great social leveller and acted as a stimulus to wider social reform after the war.
Some historians argue that the war greatly increased opportunities for women, but often the advantages were short-lived. Although by the Armistice nearly five million women were working in industry and commerce, many would lose their jobs on the return of the men after the war.
In fact, many female workers merely exchanged their pre-war poorly paid jobs as domestic servants or in textile mills for better-paid opportunities elsewhere, as part of the war effort. For example, Robert Roberts, whose family ran a shop in Salford, remembered his customers of 1918:
‘Some of the poorest in the land started to prosper as never before. In spite of the war, slum grocers managed to get hold of different and better varieties of foodstuffs of a kind sold before only in middle-class shops, and the once deprived began to savour strange delights …’
The hoards of female munitions workers perhaps gave the greatest impression that there was a Home Front during the Great War, and that social change was just around the corner. Corporal HV Shawyer recalled some female munitions workers in a Sutton Coldfield pub:
‘… I felt damned embarrassed when I walked into a pub … one girl forestalled me saying, “You keep your money Corporal. This is on us”, and with no more ado she … produced a roll of notes big enough to choke a cow. Many of the girls earned ten times my pay as a full Corporal …Lyn Macdonald, 1914-18, Voices and Images of the Great War
After the introduction of conscription in March 1916, the government encouraged women to take the place of male employees who had been released from their normal occupations to serve at the front. Whereas in July 1914, 212,000 women worked in engineering and munitions, by 1918 the total was nearly a million.
The attractions were higher wages, better conditions and greater independence. Few would return to the poor wages and conditions of domestic service if they could possibly help it. The fact that some Home Front jobs were dangerous provided a further bond with men serving at the front. However, there were several spectacular accidents in the munitions factories, for example, and around 400 women died from overexposure to TNT whilst handling shells during the war.
Defence of the Realm
The contribution of the female work force to the Home Front partly resulted in the Reform Act of July 1918, enfranchising women over 30 (those between 21 and 30 had to wait until 1928). The passing of such an act would inevitably have happened at some stage, but it might not have happened so soon if the war hadn’t provided the catalyst for social change.
The Home Front during 1914-18, however, embraced far more than women undertaking a new range of responsibilities. In some ways the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), passed in August 1914, symbolises what the Home Front idea meant. This gave government powers to commandeer economic resources for the war effort, imprison without trial, censor the printed or spoken word and greatly control a citizen’s life.
As well as rationing, public house opening times were restricted. This was as much to keep the nation fit for long hours at work, as to satisfy Lloyd George’s anxieties over alcohol. Pubs could originally open between 5.30am and half past midnight – this was amended to midday to 2.30pm and 6.30 to 9.30pm daily.
The sense of a Home Front grew more acute as World War One ground on. In February 1917, German U-boats sank 230 ships bringing food to Britain, and over half a million tons of shipping in March. This, with the need to release even more men from agriculture to serve at the front, led to the creation of the Women’s Land Army. Their task was to maximise the output from the land to feed the nation and counteract the effect of the U-boats.
Some farmers resisted this measure and the Board of Trade had to send officers around the country to persuade farmers to accept women employees. The strategy was successful, and by the end of 1917 there were over 260,000 women working as farm labourers. Elsewhere on the Home Front, rationing reduced the weekly consumption of sugar and meat in 1918.
Another way of releasing men was found with the formation in 1917 of the Royal Defence Corps of soldiers too old for the front, who could guard ports, main roads and railway yards. In many ways, they anticipated the Home Guard of 1940.
Image of the Central Telegraphic Office in London on fire after a raid
The aerial bombing of civilians was another characteristic of the Home Front. Its effect was a great social leveller: particularly obvious in an air raid, where all classes were equally at risk.
‘The window rattled behind me: then all the windows rattled and we became conscious of the booming of guns getting nearer. ‘At last the Zeppelins’, Sidney said, with almost boyish glee. From the balcony we could see shrapnel bursting over the river and behind, somewhat aimlessly. In another few minutes a long sinuous airship appeared high up in the blue black sky, lit up faintly by searchlights …
It moved slowly … the shells bursting far below it – then there were two bursts that seemed nearly to hit it and it disappeared … It was a gruesome reflection that while we were being pleasantly excited, men, women and children were being killed and maimed… There was apparently no panic, even in the crowded Strand. The Londoner persists in taking Zeppelin raids as an entertainment …’Did you see the Zeppelins?’ was the first question, in the most cheerful voice, which every man, woman and child asked each other for at least twenty hours afterwards …’ Beatrice Webb recorded her impressions of one on 8 October 1915