- King George V of Great Britain, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany were all cousins and grandchildren of Queen Victoria.
- This was the first war in human history where soldiers fought in trenches.
- At the end of the war, over 9 million soldiers had lost their lives.
- Over one million soldiers lost their lives in the infamous Battle of the Somme. In one day alone, 30,000 soldiers died.
- Nearly 10 percent of France’s population was killed or wounded during the First World War.
- Dogs were used as messengers during the war. Pigeons were also used to carry messages.
- On Christmas Eve of 1914, soldiers from both sides called for an unofficial truce and even sang Christmas carols to one another.
- The explosions from blowing up a bridge in France were heard in London, 130 miles away.
- A lot of weapons were invented during the First World War. Some had also been invented already but were used for the first time.
During the First World War 1, as the fight raged abroad, British society was also going through fundamental changes at home, some of which were fierce. For all the men, women and children that were confined to the home front through the period from 1914 to 1918, fear, grief and sorrow were the overriding emotions at that time.
Children woke up only to find that their fathers had left for distant lands to fight the war. Three hundred thousand children never saw their fathers again. 160,000 women received the dreaded telegram that informed them of their husband’s death. Thousands of families learned the meaning of suffering.
The British government was faced with a formidable task of not only rallying its troops but also rallying the entire nation to support the war effort. This was because the war sapped the morale of the entire nation with its “awful clutching fear.” Loyalty was also not guaranteed because several bodies in Britain at that time opposed the war. The Independent Labour Party, Union of Democratic Control and Fellowship of Reconciliation all opposed the war. Some parts of Britain witnessed anti-war demonstrations, industrial action, and rent strikes. Some citizens even went as far as crying for Marxist revolution.
Curfews and Censorships
Right from the moment the British government declared war on Germany and officially entered the war, they knew they had to act decisively. A bill was passed in Parliament called the Defense of the Realm Act. This act gave the government unprecedented powers to intervene in the lives of its citizens. The Government also had the power to take over any workshop or factory. Censorship and curfews were also imposed.
The act brought a lot of change as far as people’s freedom was concerned. It was an offence to discuss military matters in public. The movement of people was also severely restricted. Beer was watered down and opening hours for pubs was also cut.
Suspicion and mistrust of outsiders also grew. The civil liberties of non-British-born subjects were severely curtailed. They were not allowed to travel for more than five miles without registering and obtaining permits. Around 300,000 non-British citizens were either repatriated or held in internment camps.
When German submarines sank Lusitania, anti-German sentiments erupted in several parts of Britain. There were riots in Liverpool, Newcastle, London, Rotherham, South Wales and elsewhere. Several businesses were destroyed as a result of the riots. In Liverpool alone, more than 200 businesses were destroyed. The country descended into a trivial and hysterical state of vengeance.
Growing mistrust in the country led to what was known as spy-fever. This was because everyone was suspicious of his or her neighbour. The only fear that rivalled spy fever was the concern about women’s sexual fervour. However, in 1918, the two fears bonded.
A Member of Parliament for East Hertfordshire, Noel Pemberton, claimed that he had a copy of names of 47,000 traitors and spies that were in high places in Britain. Women were also accused of khaki fever. Since men were away in foreign lands fighting the war, the job sector in Britain was feminized.
Factories, Docklands, and the civil service were all filled with women. By 1918, 4.8 million women were employed in the industries. This had risen from 3.2 million in 1914. Most of the women employed encountered hostility from their male counterparts at work. The male workers were worried that women would take their jobs.
Since there was a shortage of skilled male workers, complex jobs had to be broken down into simpler tasks without threatening male wages. Women taking up munitions jobs also elicited particular anxieties. This was because women lamented that they were givers of life but were now being trained to take lives.
Most women were disturbed by the fact that they were using their life’s energy to destroy human souls. However, the women were also proud that they were doing all they could to bring the war to an end. Making bombs became “perfectly natural” to women. It was like making love. Propagandists got busy trying to reconcile women’s dual roles as life-givers and manufacturers of deadly weapons.
Employment opportunities for women continue to widen during the war. However, women were admitted to these jobs with strict conditions. Women were told that they did not actually replace the men but were only allowed to perform certain tasks. This was why feminists lobbying for equal wages never succeeded. Women ended up being paid half of what men were paid. The women were expected to return to their traditional roles at the end of the war.
Purpose and Emancipation
The war gave women in Britain a new sense of emancipation and purpose. Although women earned less than men, the factory wages offered were higher than what they were paid in domestic service. The women working in factories challenged the gender order. This was because they were able to demonstrate that they could perform skilled work in areas that were previously off-limits to them.
When Britain declared war on Germany, a rush of panic buying began. People started hoarding food. Several shops were closed after they were emptied by anxious shoppers. Although the government did not intervene during the early stages of food shortages, by 1916, food problems became so serious that the government was forced to intervene.
The idea of food rationing was alien to British citizens. This was because the majority of the citizens felt that voluntary restraint would be sufficient to contain food shortages. With the intensification of the German U-boat campaign, however, necessary action was needed.
In January 1918, the government launched a national sugar rationing scheme. People were not allowed to buy more than one pound of sugar per week. Rationing was also extended to include butter and margarine, fresh meat, bacon and tea.
Debates and Controversies of World War 1
Despite winning the war, Britain and her Allies lost a lot of soldiers. The scale of human devastation that was witnessed was blamed on incompetent leadership. The people of Britain showed disdain towards the generals of the British army. The generals were viewed as “donkeys” who sent “lions”, the soldiers, to their deaths in futile battles.
However, the generals could not be entirely blamed because they were used to handling small-scale forces during colonial battles. World War 1 was, therefore, a war for which they were almost entirely unprepared. They, therefore, had much to learn from this war. Despite all the challenges and setbacks, the British army that comprised of bank clerks, miner, businessmen and shop assistants emerged as a formidable fighting force.
Shot at Dawn
During the Great War, soldiers who deserted their duties were shot at dawn. This form of punishment was meant to act as a deterrent to others. This was because soldiers who deserted their duties were viewed as cowards. A lot was expected from the soldiers. Their king and country put all their hopes on them so they had to fight to the death.
However, things quickly took a different turn as the war became the most brutal war in the history of humanity. Even the most experienced of soldiers was not prepared to endure the scale of carnage that would unfold before him. For some soldiers, this horror proved too much to handle. Many soldiers simply chose to run away as they could not stand the horror on the battlefield. The trauma of witnessing so much devastation in the trenches saw the first recognition of PTSD, named “shell-shock” at the time.
The army could not afford to carry cowards, the military executed a total of 306 of its own soldiers during the First World War. The names of these soldiers do not even appear on the official list of war memorials because they were considered to have brought such a shame to the country.