WW I: Homefront

Effect of the war on the civilian population – socially and politically.  Resistance and revolutionary movements.


Social effect overview

WWI lasted from 1914 – 1918 and left massive human loss in its wake. Britain lost over a million soldiers, France over a million, Russia lost almost 2 million and the German side lost 3 and half million. The daily figure for lives lost during the war was over 5 and a half thousand. Civilian casualties composed 5% of total loss.
The war also left Europe with some positive social changes. New values replaced age-old traditional ones, women were considered equals, voting became available for all, freedoms such as speech and expression emerged as a result of the huge changes that made entire nations reflect on their way of life.

Women overview

Men were conscripted to the army, leaving women at home. This affected family dynamics, especially as men were the breadwinners. Women were then obliged to fill the role as the wage earner, and contributed to the workforce of the triple Entente powers. Women filled the positions of labourers who were now fighting in the war. This step towards women equality aided their struggle to vote.


From the year the war started, spontaneous ceasefires such as the Christmas truce in 1914…

“You are standing up to your knees in the slime of a waterlogged trench.  It is the evening of 24 December 1914 and you are on the dreaded Western Front.
Stooped over, you wade across to the firing step and take over the watch.  Having exchanged pleasantries, your bleary-eyed and mud-spattered colleague shuffles off towards his dug out.  Despite the horrors and the hardships, your morale is high and you believe that in the New Year the nation’s army march towards a glorious victory.

But for now you stamp your feet in a vain attempt to keep warm.  All is quiet when jovial voices call out from both friendly and enemy trenches.  Then the men from both sides start singing carols and songs.  Next come requests not to fire, and soon the unthinkable happens: you start to see the shadowy shapes of soldiers gathering together in no-man’s land laughing, joking and sharing gifts.
Many have exchanged cigarettes, the lit ends of which burn brightly in the inky darkness.  Plucking up your courage, you haul yourself up and out of the trench and walk towards the foe…

The meeting of enemies as friends in no-man’s land was experienced by hundreds, if not thousands, of men on the Western Front during Christmas 1914.” (http://www.firstworldwar.com/features/christmastruce.htm)

…and various mutinies on either side, such as in May 1917 when the French revolted caused a certain loss of faith and respect in leaders of the time. The incompetence of military leaders did not help these opinions towards leaders either, as they failed to adapt to modern methodology of warfare. This, in combination with the disintegration of empires such as the British, and constant border shifting not only the soldiers, but also the civilian populations in their home countries were in search of new leaders and new ideologies to help them through this difficult period. This is when ideas such as Russian Bolshevism, socialism and German Nazism were turned to. As a result of the war, entire populations were more open to new ideas of leadership, and consequently more dismissive of traditional methods of ruling. (http://www.experiencefestival.com/a/World_War_I_-_Social_effects/id/5597936)

Economic Effects

With such a focus on industry to produce warfare, technology boomed just after the war as production of cars, planes, radios, household appliances etc. increased. Mass production conserved time and effort along with human labour being replaced by mechanical. This, coupled with the introduction of the 8hr working day stimulated the economy, particularly that of America. In Europe however the participants had lost not only massive amounts of funding towards the war effort, but property and land as well. When war broke out in 1914, European countries were considered reliable money-lenders. This reputation vanished by 1918, when all together European powers owed their allies around $10 billion in dept. In an attempt to repay various amounts, and sustain their civilian populations, European countries increased the printing of money. This resulted in vast inflation all round. Even the stable middle classes, reliant on their investments were equally troubled financially. Germany suffered the most during this post-war recession, as inflation dramatically reduced the value of the German mark. During 1923 for example, over a space of three months, the Deutschmark went from 4.6 million marks to the USD to 4.2 trillion marks to the USD.

Wall Street

The largest economic crisis in the aftermath of the war was the situation concerning repaying America. The US supported the allies during the war, Britain in particular. To repay their support, Britain cashed its investments in the American railway, only then to loan huge amounts from Wall Street. President Wilson loaned another huge amount to the allies in 1916. In the 1919, American then demanded return of this money. This was done not by the allies, but by Germany which was obliged to pay these depts (as agreed in the Treaty of Versailles) as part of the reparations. In order to this, America then loaned to Germany. This vicious circle continued until 1931, when it was realised the loans would never be repaid.

Civilian Conditions

In 1918, Britain introduced rationing to limit mainly meat, sugar and butter, which worked successfully. Trade unions became more popular, their membership doubling from 4 to 8 million from 1914 to 1918. Trade unions also became more influential, and affected the economy by organising more and more strikes between 1917 and 1918. They also complained about prices, alcohol allowances, wages, overtime and inadequacy of their conditions. Compulsory conscription removed all able-bodied men from the labour force totalling 10 million, of which 750,000 died, and a further 1,700,000 were injured. Britain not only lost workers, but the demand for resources and raw materials also increased. Britain looked to its numerous colonies for help to attain necessary war materials which had been exhausted elsewhere. Geologists such as Kitson were used to discover new resources such as manganese which could then be used in production of warfare on the Gold Coast.



During the war, it was the belief of many that women were liberated politically and economically. Millicent Fawcett, leading feminist, founder of Newnham College Cambridge and president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies from 1897 to 1918, said in 1918: ‘The war revolutionised the industrial position of women – it found them serfs and left them free.’  Concerning labour, opportunities for women sky-rocketed in the paid market, as is estimated from 1914 to 1918; 2 million women took the positions of men. This resulted in a percentage increase of female workers from 24% in July 1914 to 37% in November 1918. This liberated women in that they were no longer dependent on men to make a living, and were not pitied or looked down upon for being single or widowed because they were in the same situation as married women whose husbands were fighting. With women working in factories etc. they also became a part of working decisions thus becoming more valued, as people began to realise women are just as capable as men.
The war gave rise to a wider range of occupational choice for women. This resulted in the disintegration of the traditional view of female employment being limited to domestic work. From the 1800s up to 1911, 11-13% of women in England and Wales held the positions of domestic servants. In 1931, this was true for less that 8%. As industry was booming at the time, middle class households no longer had to rely on household staff because they were adequately replaced with electrical appliances. Cookers, irons and Hoovers did not however stop middle class women in particular from desiring household servants. These possible servants however were pulled into the demands of war and therefore occupied more contributory posts to the war effort. This idea is supported by the figures that almost ½ the recruits in 1916 for the London General Omnibus Company were previously employed as household staff. The amount of female employees for the Civil Service also increased, from 33,000 in 1911 to 102,000 by 1921. Women obviously chose these positions over domestic work due to their contribution to the war effort, better pay, better conditions and increased independence.

Unions and Wages

Women were involved more and more in trade unions. The war pressured women’s participation, as their contribution to industrial output could no longer be denied. Being a major part of the working force, it was recognised they had to be part of union decisions as much as men. The feminist movement was spreading, even forming separate women’s unions which grew to intimidate the male unions. Numbers of women in trade unions increased from 357,000 in 1914 to over a million by 1918. This can also be represented as a 160% increase, in comparison to the male 44% increase during these same years.
Wages however did not change for women as a result of the war. To avoid equally paying women the same as men, companies employed several women in the place of one man, or else divided one task into several simpler steps. This meant women were still considered less than men, as they received lower wages and one woman was not enough to replace one man. In industries by 1931, women’s pay was once again ½ of that of a man, showing a return to the pre-war situation.

Post War Conditions

The war was a completely new and stressful situation, after which normal life could not continue as before. Women were suddenly forced from the comforts of their homes and servants to the heads of their families along with other roles. Women were now the primary bread-winners, had no servants, were worried for their husbands and sons, under great strain from working for the first time and doing housework, looking after their families sometimes single-handedly and still not having equal treatment to men who had to contend with ½ the strain. The end of war allowed women to retreat back into the home, but life would never again be the same. Difficulties arose when women did not wish to part with their new-found independence. Many working contracts were agreed to last ‘for the duration of the war’. Day nurseries which sprung up during the war closed down, leaving working mothers at a loss. Men returning from the war jobless began to blame women for taking their positions as unemployment rates rose.

With man turning against woman, women turned against other women, as single or widowed women decided their right to work was greater than that of married women: Isobel M Pazzey of Woolwich reflected a widely-held view when she wrote to the Daily Herald in October 1919 declaring that ‘No decent man would allow his wife to work, and no decent woman would do it if she knew the harm she was doing to the widows and single girls who are looking for work.’ She directed: ‘Put the married women out, send them home to clean their houses and look after the man they married and give a mother’s care to their children. Give the single women and widows the work.’
This concept went even further, as in 1921 women civil servants demanded a ban on married women from having the same jobs. This ban lasted until 1946. It was not only industry that suffered this controversy, hospitals that accepted women medical students during the war, turned them away in the 1920s. Teachers too, such as The National Association of Schoolmasters even campaigned against employing women. The London County Council in 1924 changed its policy phrase from ‘shall resign on marriage’ to ‘the contract shall end on marriage’. Society was dealing with the question of women equality only as it new how. This was such a strange and at that time, unique situation, countries dealt with the issue differently.


Historians speculate whether WWI caused female property owners over 30 to get the vote in 1918, particularly when it was the younger women who worked, and therefore they should be more entitled to the vote than the older women.
The question arose in 1917, when the government realised an election was needed. Only male residents from 12 months before the election were permitted to vote. This, the government realised excluded soldiers and women. The franchise was then revised, with the persuasive tactics of Millicent Fawcett and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, to allow women to vote as well under the Liberal leader, Asquith. Only in 1928, were 21 year old women given the vote. In 1918, only 40% of women could vote, compared to 1928 when 53% of women could vote. ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/britain_wwone/)


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