World War I, the Great War, the War to end all Wars”, each of these soubriquets has been used to describe the conflagration that exploded on the world, or more particularly, European stage in 1914 following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914. However, why should this conflict have an impact on the world that was greater in its significance than any of the myriad conflicts that had taken place in the preceding centuries, leaving aside the important fact that Europe, in the previous century had enjoyed relative calm when compared to the period that began with Churchill’s victory at Blenheim and ended with Napoleon’s downfall at the hands of Wellington at Waterloo?
The simple answer would be to state that the world had changed beyond recognition since 1815, the advent of nationalism that had grown throughout the later decades of the nineteenth century had given birth to a world that people born a few years earlier would not be able to recognise.
In addition, industrialisation on a grand scale across Europe, following the lead of Britain in particular, meant that the armies that marched off to war were armed with weapons that had been unthinkable in the complexity and numbers and yet were becoming increasingly taken for granted.
Indeed, Briggs makes reference to Bagehot’s view that “modern society had moved…into the ‘age of discussion'” (p.273, History of England)
It is reasonable to take World War I to mean the period August 1914 – November 1918 for the purposes of the essay, in my opinion.
Therefore, what needs to be defined, before an effective answer can be constructed, is what is the phrase “social classes” and what it encompasses. Any answer must also involve comparison between pre and post war society in order to demonstrate what changes were brought about, if any. Furthermore, I believe that in order to provide an accurate response it is imperative that “social classes” is expanded beyond the stereo-typical definition of upper, middle and working class to look specifically at the effects of the war on women and children since they were affected in ways which the men fighting were not and vice versa.
Much of Europe, at the start of the war, was still ruled by monarchies of varying degrees, from the democratic, parliamentary Britain to the autocratic total monarchy of Russia, where the Tsar still ruled with an iron fist and without recourse to the people. The Kaiser dominated Germany and an Emperor ruled Austria-Hungary. In the west, there was a wealthy aristocracy that exerted an influence far beyond its numbers, based on a centuries old system of “noblesse oblige”, whilst the Russian aristocracy treated the peasantry as pawns.
Lower down the social order were the so-called middle/professional classes-self made men in the industrialised world who had used the wealth they had acquired to gain power and influence with those who had long seen themselves as their “betters”. The last group in society, by far the largest, consisted of the working classes/lower classes-people who subsisted at a basic level and worked either on the land or in the factories/industries that had sprung up during the nineteenth century.
The traditional role of women in this society was seen as being decorative or as a wife/mother giving nurture and succour to her family. It was considered usual for women to leave work upon marriage in order to look after their husbands. Indeed, women of a certain standing regarded it as almost beneath them to go out to work. However, there was an increasing movement towards improving conditions for women-they had been given the franchise in some countries prior to the war, for example.
The world that emerged from World War I was vastly different to that which had existed just four years earlier-Russia was in the throes of being brought under the influence of the communists, led by Lenin, whilst her former allies, Britain and America, were fighting to safeguard their own interests and those of the “White Russians” in Archangel and Siberia. For the Russian ruling classes the war saw an end to their power and prosperity, and in many cases brought about their deaths both from fighting at the eastern front against Germany, but also at the hands of their murderous countrymen after the 1917 Revolutions, which saw the downfall of the Romanov dynasty and the end of Russia as a monarchy. That the lot of the Russian peasant failed to improve, and in many cases was made much worse by the shortages of food that were brought about by the changes introduced by the soviet state has often been glossed over or ignored by historians with their own political agenda but is extremely relevant here.
In Britain, like so much of Europe, the war had seen the death of a generation of society, with the upper and middle classes particularly affected, as these were the source of many of the officer class who died in “Flanders Fields”. However, unlike other countries, “ex-servicemen never became a separate….. political group”(Taylor, p.162)-witness the number of ex-soldiers who flocked to Hitler’s side when he formed the National Socialist movement in Germany, by comparison.
During the latter stages of the previous century, Britain had extended the voting franchise to include a greater proportion of the male population. However, the concept of giving women the vote had been avoided. This was to end in 1918 when the franchise was extended to householders over 30. Notwithstanding this, it would be unfair to describe this as being a direct outcome of the war, although the fact that women were to play such a vital role in keeping the economy turning during the war is likely to have had an effect on the decision.
The war also saw the union movement being brought closer to the centre of national politics as they were given a voice by the government in order to ensure their support for the war effort. At the same time the Labour Party began to emerge from the shadows of the Liberals with whom they had been allied, providing the working classes with an increasingly influential presence
In Germany the Kaiser had been forced to concede that the ‘Prussian franchise should be reformed after peace was made’ (Roberts, p242), which would have weakened the power base of the Junkers class and improved the lot of the middle/peasant classes by giving them a political voice. The emergence of Nazism and other post-war extremes shows the extent to which the German social order broke down after the war.
As Marwick observes in Book 2, thinking of war ‘as something external acting’ on society is a mistake since ‘societies are themselves involved in war’ (p.62, The Impact of World War). This is particularly relevant here for those areas of Belgium and France, which were occupied by German forces for much of the war, and Russia/eastern Europe, which saw far greater fluidity of movement and devastation than the Western Front. On this basis, could we even go so far as to argue that war had no effect (lasting effect?) on social class? I believe not since the evidence to the contrary is too great. However, I also hold to the view that the war merely acted as a conduit for change and, indeed, on occasion may have actually held back change-Britain for example had already seen a sea change in its socio-political scene and it is likely that the franchise would have been extended earlier had war not intervened.
Overall, the war served to bring about many changes on the social scenery-the fact that the aristocratic/wealthy classes lost out by a disproportionate degree meant that the world that emerged in 1918 was far removed from that which had entered the war just a few years earlier. It has even been suggested that World War I may have marked the beginning ‘of mass society’ (Marwick, p171). He goes on to argue that ‘many of the most powerful monarchs were on the losing side’ (Book2, p98) and that the war was a ‘disaster for the aristocracy’ since the reforms on land distribution saw ‘some 60 million acres from great estates’ being given over to the peasantry (Book2, p.91). The effect of death duties in countries like Britain also proved themselves to be a massive burden as the families suffered both from the loss of their kin and were also heavily penalised financially for their commitment and patriotism.
However, whilst the war saw the end of certain symbols of aristocratic life, such as their London town houses, it also brought them greater mobility and improved the financial sate of those who were involved in the production and provision of war materiel. The impact of inflation, particularly in Germany and central Europe both during and after the war meant that landowners and industrialists were able to pay off their loans and mortgages far sooner than may have been the case had the pre-war status quo continued. It also meant that the lot of the working classes was helped since their wages were increasing whilst rents remained relatively stable. However, here again hyper inflation brought about unrest on a massive scale and was the cause of much social unrest and eventually lead to the General Strike, the birth of Nazism in Germany and other serious social upheavals.
Marwick notes that the effect of the war hit the ‘salaried middle classes [whose] salaries tended to lag behind wages and prices’ (Book2, p101) and whose savings were destroyed by the effects of inflation. As with the aristocracy, many families lost their only sons as their families tended to be smaller than those of the working class did.
The war saw many women going to work to support the war effort-munitions factories, for example, were largely manned by women and after the war ended they wanted to continue to enjoy the benefits of their enhanced freedom. In addition, there was a desire to ensure that men who had been fighting were also given proper employment and this forced many changes on society.
Whilst it would be unwise or unfair to suggest that World War I was wholly responsible for all of the changes to the social scenery of Europe and the rest of the world it undoubtedly brought many issues to a head. In Ireland, for example, Nationalists used the war to press for their independence at a time when Britain was vulnerable and unable/unwilling to be drawn into a social battle at home-the result was Home Rule and eventually the setting up of the so-called Free State. Elsewhere, the monarchies of Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary fell along with others in the east. Constitutionalism was widespread after the war, limiting the power of the traditional power bases and giving the peasants and workers more of a saw in their own destinies.