British Society and the 1st World War

Monday 20 April, 2015, by Dr Adrian Gregory

In around forty-five minutes, Dr Gregory delivered his lecture, demonstrating how matters at home impacted on the business at the Front during the conflict.

British society prior to 1914 had been very localised: people worked within walking distance of home, many lived-in as domestic staff, and services were mainly provided by Local Government. There was, however, mass emigration to destinations within the Empire, for, although commerce and industry were buoyant at home, there was extraordinary poverty, resembling that of today’s Third World nations. The population, relatively young (its norm large families, checked by high infant mortality), Trade Unions, an emergent Labour Party, women suffragettes, and suffragists clamoured for a reluctant Liberal Government to do something at national level. The most urgent concern was not the rise of militarist Germany but the “Irish Question”, politics on the emerald isle embracing militarism, gun-running, and armed opposition to British troops. A sense of crisis obtained, certainly, but no inevitable explosion.

In 1914, however, there was considerable dismay, the economy in bad shape, unemployment rising, a panic setting in regarding supplies, rampant inflation, and then that fateful August Bank Holiday weekend. On the Sunday, there were substantial anti-war protests, but Germany’s subsequent trespass onto Belgian soil brought Britain unavoidably to war in support of her ally, France. The Liberal Lloyd-George and much Liberal opinion openly supported the war.

War accepted, patriotic feelings manifested themselves in support of the Armed Forces, heightened at the end of August following the Mons débâcle, as the need for more soldiers grew desperate. Basing his thinking on earlier Napoleonic wars, Lloyd-George declared “Business as usual”, but Kitchener was to draw thousands of men away from the workplace. The press criticised the management of the war, demanding a more effective industrial workforce at home, equal to the necessary huge demand for supplies.

Gallipoli, April 1915, was unsuccessful, the ensuing Coalition Government containing Conservatives calling for greater effort on the Western Front, this giving rise, in turn, to the Derby Scheme and the Military Service Act. Lloyd-George understood the merits of using the suffragettes against the Trade Unions, bringing them into industrial employment to address the outright labour shortage. At this time also, rent protests on the Clyde led to the passing of a Rent Act, while Lloyd-George increased anti-drink measures as a means of curbing the growing incidence of drunkenness.

The war appeared to be heading for a swift military conclusion, but Allied offensives were derailed by events at Verdun in 1915, leading to the launch of the Somme offensive of July-November 1916. If the Allies did come close to getting the Germans to the negotiating table, it would take a further two more years of struggle to do so. After the loss of his son, Asquith, understandably, had little appetite for the war, and was replaced by Lloyd-George, who concentrated on holding British society together in 1917, at a time of unrestricted U-boat warfare, exacerbated by Britain’s own limited strategic options. The dynamics changed once Tsarist Russia imploded and the USA entered the fray, not for that long-held British concept of the Balance of Power, but “for the sake of democracy and civilisation”.

By late 1917 the pressures of new forms of industrialised warfare intensified, the bombing raids, notably by Gotha bombers on London, growing more serious. Nonetheless, the population was confident of final victory, accepting stoically the 1918 introduction of sugar, margarine, and meat rationing. Other combatant nations had put bread on ration, yet Britain did not.

Despite enormous tensions, British society held together. Around 750,000 young British men lost their lives (12% of those under arms), a similar number being badly wounded, this human cost unevenly spread in both families and communities, the tension between survivors’ “guilt” and the anger of those bereaved particularly acute. Working-class families may have had greater losses, but the smaller middle-class family units often lost an only son. The middle-classes, particularly, were resolved to press on for absolute victory, in an attempt to justify the sacrifice made to achieve it, while families with members still at the Front, however, were more amenable to a compromise to end the conflict.

The Armistice of November 1918 brought hostilities to a close, but the Peace Treaty was not signed until June 1919, so, correctly, the war is the 1914-1919 War. Why had it been fought? It was a war against militarism, intended to put an end to belligerence itself. The author H.G. Wells coined the phrase “The war to end wars”, but Maréchal Foch opined (rightly, as it turned out) that the Treaty of Versailles delivered merely a fragile peace for the coming 20 years. That British generation which lived through it regarded this war as the Great War, and British society, dusting itself down after more than four years of bitter struggle, realised that things would never be the same again, pre-1914 Britain having changed forever.

Stefan Gatward