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The British Homefront Essay

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Using the information in the sources and your own knowledge, in what ways were the lives of the people at home affected by the First World War?

War was declared on Germany on 2nd August 1914. A world war like this had never been experienced before and many people did not know what to expect. Many of these people thought that it would be over by Christmas of the same year. But it wasn’t. It affected the British people in many different ways. This is what I am aiming to investigate.

The most obvious and immediate affect of the war was recruitment. Traditionally Britain had relied on voluntary recruitment, and the government decided this should continue, backed by an official recruitment campaign, e.g. posters, leaflets, stirring speeches by government ministers and regular stories of German atrocities etc. These things proved very effective to begin with; many people were encouraged by the recruitment campaign and thought it was their duty to remain loyal to their country. They were proud of their country which the Germans were seen to be threatening. Half a million young men signed up in the first month.

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An example of the posters used to encourage the men to sign up is the one in Source B. It was issued in 1914 and features Lord Kitchener, a successful former soldier who later became the Secretary of State for War, pointing at the reader. This attracted the readers’ attention straight away, making them feel like they were being directly targeted. The writing on the poster proclaims ‘Britons’ [picture of the Lord Kitchener] ‘Wants you. Join your country’s army.’ This text made the young men reading the poster feel valued as individuals who could help their country. It also appealed to their patriotism at a time when morale was high. The declaration of war had even been celebrated by many people, and support for the war effort was extremely high. Many other posters were issued, often aimed at women who were encouraged to persuade their sons, boyfriends and husbands to join the army.

However, as the war progressed, this support declined greatly. In September 1914, 436 000 men signed up to the army. But by December 1915 these figures had fallen to just 55 000. Public morale was at an all time low. The enormous numbers of casualties on the Western Front could not be hidden from the public, and women who had encouraged the men in their family to fight for their country now received telegrams from the War Office informing them their loved ones had been killed, wounded or were missing.

The shocking reality of the war was proclaimed from every newspaper and people were horrified. The government now had a huge problem; voluntary recruitment would soon not produce enough soldiers to replace the dead and wounded. Also the volunteer system was damaging Britain’s agriculture and industry (with millions of its workers fighting in the army), and it was seen as unfair. It annoyed people that some of the fittest and most able men had not volunteered. Their solution to the problem was conscription – compulsory military service.

The Military Service Act was passed in 1916, bringing conscription into force for men aged 18-41. Eventually many people welcomed conscription.

However, some of those people who had not volunteered before conscription was introduced still did not join up. They were ‘conscientious objectors’ or ‘conchies’, and opposed the war for political or religious reasons. They were sentenced to go to prison, to do hard labour or they went to the Front to work in field hospitals or as stretcher bearers. They were often shouted at by women who thought of them as cowards, or presented with a white feather, the sign of cowardice.

It was because people’s lives were changing drastically during the war that the government also had to adjust to help British people as best they could. The Defence of the Realm Act were a series of new laws to help the government do this. The first act was passed in 1914, and was followed by others. These acts, or DORA as they became known, did the following things;

* Daylight working hours were extended by the introduction of British Summer Time in 1916

* Restrictions were placed on pub opening hours to reduce drunkenness. This is mentioned in Source A, an article by a modern historian, and is one explanation for how women were able to make wages go further, allowing more money for food and fuel. Rationing was also controlled.

* The government took control of some essential jobs such as coal mining, farming and transport to support the war effort

* To avoid strikes in industry, arbitration (the settlement of dispute by a third party) was made compulsory

* The trade unions had to allow women to perform jobs previously reserved for craftsmen. This was known as dilution. This was not always welcomed and women faced discrimination. This is mentioned in Source F, an account of one woman’s experiences during WWI. She explains how she was unfairly treated by her male work colleagues.

* It allowed the government to control what the public knew about the war through censorship.

As we can see, DORA helped to control rationing. Food supply in Britain had become desperate. By April 1917, German U-boats were sinking one in every four British merchant ships. Britain had only six weeks supply of wheat left and this led to high prices for basic foods. Wages had not risen during the war but prices had. This meant rich people bought more food than they needed and hoarded it, while poor could not even afford bread.

The government responded with a range of measures such as raising the wages of industrial workers to avoid strikes, starting a system of voluntary rationing led by the Royal Family, introducing new laws to control the price of bread and publishing posters and recipe books encouraging people to be economical with their food.

However none of these measures was effective in reducing food shortages, so in 1918 the government introduced compulsory rationing on sugar, butter, meat and beer. Every person had a book of coupons to be used when buying rationed food. Generally rationing was welcomed as a fairer system of sharing out the available food. By the end of the war, as result of rationing, the diet and health of many poorer people had actually improved in comparison with pre-war days.

There is evidence of this in Source A, written by Clive Emsley (a modern historian), in ‘New Perspectives’ magazine in 1990. In this secondary data he explains that ‘many of the poor found themselves in permanent employment… and wages generally kept up with wartime inflation’, leading to more money being saved and spent on food. Also the food that was being bought was healthier; fruit and vegetables were not rationed where as sugar, butter, beer and meat (all high-calorie foods) were. Emsley also mentions there was a decline in death rate, particularly in infant deaths, suggesting people were healthier because of their better diet.

DORA was also responsible for giving the government the right to control the newspapers and other mass media that might influence people’s opinions towards the war. Despite the problems of the first few months on the Western Front, the British people were only told about great British victories or heroic resistance. They were not told about the sinking of the British battleship HMS Audacious in October 1914 for example. It was not until November 1916 that the government allowed approved journalists to be at the Front. Reports focused on good news. This was censorship. If anybody resisted, forced censorship was used.

If independent papers didn’t publish balanced news or even anti-war articles, they were closed down (as The Tribunal was), or monitored closely (like The Daily Herald). In 1916 alone the government Press Bureau and Intelligence services examined 38 000 articles, 25 000 photographs and 300 000 private telegrams.

Another way the government controlled the views of the British public during the war was propaganda. It was used to help keep up morale, encourage people to support the war effort and to create hatred and suspicion of the enemy. The number of people reading patriotic journals like John Bull increased. Over 9 million people saw the propaganda film For the Empire, and 240 other films were also produced between 1915 and 1918. Another propaganda triumph was the film Battle of the Somme (released in August 1916).

It showed real scenes from the battle. Although it shocked some people with its realism, many people agreed it was their first chance to see what war conditions were really like. This propaganda was aimed at adults, but most historians agree that it had more effect on children than any other group in society, with toys and patriotic books and comics aimed at them. It is hard to measure how effective the propaganda was, but public support does seem to have remained steady throughout the war despite the immense casualties.

As we have already realised, although war is a terrible thing, it did help people in some aspects of their lives, such as improving their diet. Another area that it improved was women’s rights.

The high number of men recruited into the army created labour shortages, especially in industries essential for the war effort. The government needed theses job vacancies filled and realised women could do this. Again DORA gave them the power to do this. Many women, suffragettes in particular, saw this as a good opportunity to advance their cause. They showed their support in many ways, e.g. by changing their slogan from ‘Right to Vote’ to ‘Right to Serve’, The Order of the White Feather encouraged women to give white feathers to those not in the armed forces as a sign of cowardice, and women members of the Active Service League took an oath to promise to encourage young men to join up. Also Mrs. Pankhurst staged a huge demonstration demanding that women be allowed to work in munitions.

By the end of the war half a million women had replaced men in office jobs, although women were not accepted by unions because it was thought they would be paid less, affecting men’s wages, and they lacked the necessary skills, However they soon became grave diggers, road layers, welders, steel workers and bus drivers.

If they worked in munitions it was tiring and dangerous. As the war went on, shifts got longer and longer. In August 1916, medical reports showed women handling TNT explosives suffered from breathing difficulties, rashes, yellowing of the skin, digestive problems, blood poisoning and even brain damage.

This is supported by Source D, a letter written in 1976 by a woman who lived through WWI. It explains that although factories weren’t safe, it made women more independent. This woman writes about how she preferred munitions to domestic service, and the pay was better. She earned �5 a week instead of �2 a month.

However, although work could be dangerous, women did change socially for the better. The jobs created by the war gave them a sense of independence and confidence. Fashion and behaviour considered shocking before the war was increasingly seen as normal, and books like Married Love and Wise Parenthood written by Dr. Marie Stopes in 1918 emphasised the beginning of a revolution in the role and status of women.

There is lots of evidence to suggest war had a positive effect on women. In Source C, an extract form a journal written by Rifleman H. V. Shawyer in 1916, we can see that women earned as much as ten times a man’s pay as a full Corporal, particularly as munitions workers. They enjoyed the work better and often earned more money (as we saw in Source D).

Women were encouraged to get jobs as munitions workers by the government. They produced posters (like the one in Source E, created in 1916) for the women to see. The poster in Source E has large bold text saying ‘On her our lives depend’. Soldiers didn’t always receive training while on the Front, so good munitions were essential. It also says ‘Women munitions workers, enrol at once’. This made the women feel valued and needed urgently. They were seen as important at a time when they had always been treated as inferior to men. The smiling worker on the poster gave them the idea that the work would be enjoyable and sociable.

Yet this was not always the case. Source F is a part of an account of one woman’s experiences during WWI, written in 1919. This woman tells of how her male colleagues ‘gave her wrong or incomplete directions and altered them in such a way as to create hours more work’. She didn’t have any tools but could not borrow anything from the men. They did not talk to her and even nailed up her drawer and poured oil over her belongings. It shows how women’s working wasn’t always welcomed.

After studying the different aspects of the British Homefront during WWI, I think the lives of people at home changed greatly. Recruitment and conscription meant that millions of men joined the armed forces to fight for their country, and millions of these men were killed, wounded or went missing, leaving Britain without a generation of men. Both home and away there were positive and negative effects. Away from home there was heroic resistance but much death and horror.

At home, diets and therefore health improved with rationing, and women became more independent and had more money as the government encouraged them to fill job vacancies created as men left their jobs to fight. But they did face discrimination in the workplace. And at home, due to censorship, the British public saw little of the terrible war conditions. With the help of DORA, the government could control what the public saw and how they saw it. This appears to have helped the war effort, but it annoyed many people who felt it was their right to know what was happening but were still kept in the dark.

In my opinion, I think the government used their power to change people’s lives for the better in the circumstances, and despite the huge numbers of casualties, the prejudice women experienced and the shocking horror of the war that was kept from the public, people at home did benefit, and as their lives changed, the war effort became as success.

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