The First World War has loomed large in British history and in British national identity; it has received considerable attention by historians and has proved to be one of the canonical topics taught to all children in school. At the time, the war affected every stratum of society through the unprecedented scale of loss and destruction, or by their contribution to the war effort. Indeed, William Griffiths commented that “The impact of the war upon society was inescapable”.[1] However, we must question why the war continues to play such a large role in national consciousness today, and whether the impact of the war has been exaggerated. This essay shall seek to explore the presence of truth in key claims, such as the war socially and politically emancipated women, whether the war can be seen to be an equalising agent for society and also looking at the idea of the lost generation. The use of several primary sources shall be used throughout to explore to what extent the change in British society has been exaggerated by historians and social commentators.

Within months of the outbreak of the war, the impact upon society was being recognised in not just Britain, but across Europe. Gail Braybon notes how surprisingly early on in the war the acknowledgement that the mass military and industrial mobilisation was going to have a permanent and drastic effect on class, gender relations and the family.[2] The inclusion of women into the workforce was viewed in a variety of ways, one of which was displaying unity behind the war effort with the men at the front. Feminists noted that their actions during the war were bound to ensure female suffrage, due to the vote being a ‘patriotic right’.[3] However it was also viewed through fearful eyes, believing women would not simply revert back to their domestic setting, which they occupied prior to the war. In many ways women became the focus of hope and anxiety of the post war world, their position at the end of the war would display the extent of social change within Britain.[4]

Arthur Marwick describes the position of working class women up prior to the war, as them being the “industrial drudges of the community”, earning a third of the wages a man from the same class, the average being 11s 7d per week. Marwick continues to state that the inclusion of women in the workforce was limited in the early stages of the war; it wasn’t until April 1915 that the number of women workers was at the same level as it was in pre-war Britain.[5] The ‘liberation’ of women was portrayed in the media highlighting the woman’s presence in the public domain, as displayed by image captioned “Oh! My Grandmother!”. This image is suggesting so many different themes; the shock of the grandmother is mostly likely caused by seeing these women taking on jobs that would have conducted by men prior to the war, and displaying other masculine qualities, such as smoking. The image caption, ‘In her time girls would be girls; but now girls will be men’, suggests that the alignment of women to men suggests equal status between the two. However, Margaret and Patrice Higonet dismiss in behind the lines, gender and the two world wars, using the ‘double helix theory’.[6] Higonet’s theory asserts that even though women made obvious advancements and proved themselves capable of many tasks, their status within society has not altered in relation to men. During the war the women not only entered into the munitions factory, but also assumed the roles which were previously male occupations ranging from window cleaning to clipping train tickets, as shown in image 7 D. By replacing men in the workplace, women had finally gained access to higher wages, earning £2 2s 4d, a massive increase to their pre-war wages, however, their subordinate status in relation to men was still enforced, receiving about half of what a man would expect to earn during the war time.[7] The discrimination of women in the workplace was not focussed solely on their wages, the accesses to the supervisory roles in factories were exclusively held by men.[8] No matter how much more powerful women become, as Gilbert suggests, the actual balance of power within society was not altered:

“When the home front is mobilised, women may be allowed to move ‘forward’ in terms of employment or social policy, yet the battlefront – predominantly a male domain – takes economic and cultural priority. Therefore, while women’s objective situation does change, relationships of domination and subordination are retained through the discourses that systematically designate unequal gender relations.”[9]

Historians, such as B. E. Schmitt, H. Vendeler, H. Fischer, E. X. Dubois, and Marwick, have accepted the idea that the Great War was a social and political ‘watershed’ for women and it marked women’s emancipation.[10]  Their emancipation can be seen through their actions and changes in appearance during the war years; Bernadotte Schmitt stated, “The social behaviour and dress of women altered concomitantly with these changes of status”.[11] He goes on to state that the moral decline of women during the war years stemmed from their new social freedoms, led to an increased level of promiscuity and sexual relations.[12] This is however completely dismissed by Gail Braybon arguing that the argument of orthodox historians is “patronising, misleading and inaccurate”.[13]

The change of gender relations within British society has been described as a myth by many gender historians. Mary Louise Roberts states that; “change… has been defined as a cultural construction rather than a social, political or economic reality”[14] arguing that though society recognises a change, no effects can actually be felt. Roberts continues by stating, “Debate concerning gender identity became a primary way to embrace, resist or reconcile oneself to changes associated to the Great War”.[15] The focus of contemporaries and gender historians, has been the idea of finding meaning in a seemingly meaningless conflict, as creating a desire to find evidence of the advancement of women. Joan Scott agrees with Braybon that trying to view the Great War as a ‘watershed’ or a turning point within British society is a fallacy, which falls apart with deeper analysis into gender relations.

In the post war period there was a gender backlash which attacked the gains women experienced during the war.  This can be seen in the Restoration of Pre-War Practise Act of 1919, forcibly pushing women back into the domestic sphere for the returning men.  The war had established the ability of women who were able to do a number of different tasks, but “it did not demonstrate that they should be able to do them”[16].  Their war work had not gained women the privileges men had available to them; it had failed in challenging the notion of sexual divisions of labour and the pre-war idea of the male breadwinner.

Braybon, Roberts and Grayzel put forward arguments which all agree that the development of the position of women is a fallacy; yes they won the vote after the war, however, directly attributing it towards their involvement in the war effort belittles the pre-war work of the female suffrage groups. Furthermore, the balance in power remained in male favour, as women achieved only a limited franchise, “calculated to exclude enough women to ensure that they were a minority in the electorate, and thus excluding the majority of women war-workers” [17].

Braybon asserts that, “women emerged from the dimness of ordinary life into the brilliant illumination of wartime, only to drop back into the shadows once more in 1918”[18]. Whereas Grayzel argues that the Great War does little other than consolidate the existing gender system and did not transform it.[19] Finally Roberts views it slightly differently, due to the alteration of masculinity from pre to post war Britain, the gender order was subsequently smashed during the war, however it was subsequently rebuilt in the post war reconstruction phase, placing women as subordinate to the men. The lack of change in the position of women from the pre-war to the post war periods, shows that the idea of their emancipation has indeed been exaggerated.

Historians and social commentators frequently cite the lost generation as an impact of the First World War. This idea can still be seen in national consciousness today, the Ode of Remembrance by Laurence Binyon which speaks of the lost generation, still forms an integral part of remembrance services. In the early months of the conflict, several observers described that the incidence of war-related mortality varied according to class, with men of a higher social class being more likely to perish. In war, every death is wasteful, however, the deaths of the well-educated, middle and upper class young men brought about what was called a ‘Lost Generation’, lost from the arts, from politics and from society as a whole preventing them to fulfil their potential, which has been attributed to the shortcomings of the inter-war generation.[20] John turner writes on the subject of the upper class and middle class deaths, “the impact of war casualties was dysgenic since the upper the upper and middle classes of society did suffer proportionately heavier losses”[21], which he sees as a confirmation that ,in this sense, there was a very large element of truth in the idea of the lost generation[22]. In J. Winters study into Britain’s ‘Lost Generation’ of the First World War, he contests the notion of a demographic lost generation as being false, the losses of Britain was relatively small in comparison to the countries on the continent with 6.7 per-cent being killed between the ages 15 to 49.[23] The number of fatalities in the rank of officer stood at 13.6%, only 2.1% greater than the percentage of deaths of the ordinary soldier. Thus even the claim that the lost generation stemmed from the upper classes is difficult to justify when the total deaths of officers who served during the war stood at 13.6 per-cent.

The lost generation, as proven above, was not an easily recognisable demographic shift, instead as Gerard DeGroot points out, “the lost were not those who died, but those condemned to go on living in horror, grief and guilt.”[24] When the guns fell silent every survivor, civilian and soldier, had to deal with their own individual anguish, some adjusted, others did not. Vera Brittains’s fiancé, Roland, writes of his “spiritual metamorphosis” resulting in radical alienation from the “normal” world, because of his time on the front, Roland likened himself to a “wild man of the woods” almost exiled from their own society.[25] Men just like Roland became disillusioned with the very culture they had been deputised to defend, which Brittain attributes to the dehumanizing mud and the scale of destruction.[26] Michael Adams states how “some of the thoughtful survivors came to see themselves as a lost generation, blighted in their youth and offered up for sacrifice by their elders.”[27] In demographic terms the notion of the lost generation can be seen to be exaggerated, as can be seen in recent historiography which has attacked this idea. However, in terms of a psychological disconnect a large number of men never truly left the battlefield. Nevertheless the role of the lost generation in national remembrance today show the continuation of this idea far beyond the lifetimes of those affected.

The last claim this essay shall explore is whether or not the Great War can be considered to be an equaliser. The focus and attention the war created with regards to human life, led to an increased awareness of living standards within Britain.  The sheer quantity of men which were deemed physically unfit for military service highlighted the poor conditions which the men of the nation are experiencing in Britain, politicians began to recognise men who were willing to lay down their lives for Britain deserve better.[28] Walter Long a Conservative MP argued, “To Let them come home from horrible, waterlogged trenches to something little better than a pigsty here would, indeed, be criminal… and a negation of all we have said during the war, that we can never repay those men for what they have done for us.”[29] The idea of creating a world fit for the returning soldiers was a key issue in the 1918 election; however the image of the forgotten soldier is a more apt image of the post war period. In the Voices of the Great War, the futility of post war period was described;

“As a small boy in Southsea, I saw streets disfigured by ragged, unwanted ex-soldiers, medalled, but ill, blind, maimed, selling matches, bootlaces, notepaper, trundling barrel-organs or standing with a melancholy dog or monkey beside a decrepit hurdy-gurdy. Whether they were pleading or abusive, resigned or menacing, they appalled me. Their wretchedness suggested that, in overthrowing Germany, they had earned some monstrous penalty now being… enacted.”[30]

Due to government agencies refusing to bear the entire burden of ex-soldiers, the veterans, especially those injured by the war, had to rely upon charity. However, this notion was deemed as humiliating for many soldiers, one disabled man reiterated, “It is not charity I want, but what I am entitled to.”[31] Despite soldiers sacrifices during the war the military pension did not reward all, being given only to men who received injuries which were directly attributed to the war.[32] Raven Hill’s image, Lest We Forget, depicts an elderly former soldier being forced to beg, an obvious wounded veteran, due to his makeshift limb made from a chair leg. The image was intended to dismay and shock the audience of the publication of Reveille into action.[33] Those who survived the conflict have been forgotten whilst the dead have been immortalised as the heroes through monuments erected in their honour.

Although the war highlighted the conditions of the poor, it was far from being an equalising factor; the working class who had fought for King and country were in many cases left to their own devices, if they had been turned away as not being deserving of a military pension. That being said, there was a noticeable redistribution of income during the war due to several social policies, including rent controls and tax increases which rendered the wealthy worse off, whilst the labour shortage ensured the working class could demand a higher wage.[34] Though the new tax revenue from rent was mildly redistributive, it did not lessen the class distinctions, showing that as an equalising agent the war failed, the class boundaries still largely remained intact, just with lower levels of poverty.

To conclude, the Great War’s impact upon British society was massive; however, where gains were made the pre-existing social order was more than capable of affirming the position of the upper class and male. The position of women advanced to include at least a proportion of them in the vote; however, it still excluded the majority of women who had taken up war work. Despite taking on male roles during the war they had not gained the status attributed to men. The position of women remained subordinate to men and their status largely unchanged by the end of the war, due to the gender backlash and the Restoration of Pre-War Practise Act of 1919. The notion of the lost generation was also seen to be a fallacy in regards to a demographic loss of life, that being said the psychological damage the war inflicted onto the British man, meant that in many incidences they were never able to truly reintegrate back into society. Furthermore, class divisions never subsided, but poverty was tackled and a better quality of life for the working class existed. That being said the veterans of the conflict were largely unrewarded for their contribution to the war effort and ignored by society. Survivors were forgotten, whilst the fallen were immortalised in British national identity. The impact of the war upon society has been exaggerated to a large degree in all three of these areas, at least in popular memory; the culture of remembrance is especially selective.

 

[1] William R. Griffiths, The Great War, (New York: Square One Publishers, 2003); p. 408.

[2]  Gail Braybon, ‘Women, War and Work’, in Hew Strachan (ed.), World War 1, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp.149-162; p. 149.

[3] Braybon, ‘Women’, p. 149.

[4] Braybon, ‘Women’, p. 149.

[5] Arthur Marwick, The Deluge, (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006); p. 127.

[6] Margaret R. Higonnet and Patrice L. Higonnet, ‘The Double Helix’, in Margaret Higonnet, Jane Jenson, Sonya Michel, and Margaret Collins Weitz (ed.)s, Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars, (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1987); pp.31-47; p.34.

[7] Angela Woollacott, On her their lives depend: Munitions Workers in the Great War, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994); p. 61.

[8] Higonnet & Higonnet, ‘The Double Helix’, p.35.

[9] Margaret R. Higonnet et al, ‘Introduction’ in Margaret R. Higonnet et al (ed.)s, Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars, (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1987), pp.1-17; p. 6.

[10] Braybon, ‘Women’, p. 150.

[11] Bernadotte Everly Schmitt, The world in the crucible, 1914-1919, (New York: Harper& Row, 1988); p. 461.

[12] Schmitt, The world, p. 461.

[13] Braybon, ‘Women’, p. 150.

[14] Mary Louise Roberts, Civilization without Sexes, (Chicargo, University of Chicargo Press, 2009); p. 215.

[15] Roberts, Civilization, p. 5.

[16] Thom, Nice Girls and Rude Girls: Women Workers in World War I, (London: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 1998); p.42.

[17] Martin Pugh, ‘Politician and the Women’s Vote’, History, 59, 1974, pp.358-374, in Thom, Nice Girls, p.9.

[18] Gail Braybon, ‘Winners or Losers: Women’s Symbolic Role in the War Story’, in Gail Braybon (ed.), Evidence, History, and the Great War: Historians and the Impact of 1914-18, (New York: Berghahn Books, 2003), pp.86-112; p.88.

[19] Susan Grayzel, Women’s Identities at War: Gender, Motherhood, and Politics in Britain and France During the First World War, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999); p. 278.

[20] R. Pound, The Lost Generation, (Evans Trail: University of Michigan, 1964); p.218.

[21] John Turner, Britain and the First World War, (London: Routledge, 1988); p. 106

[22] Turner, Britain, p. 106.

[23] J Winters, ‘Britain’s ‘Lost Generation’ of the First World War’, Population Studies, 31(3), 1977, pp. 449-466; p.452.

[24] Gerard DeGroot, Blighty: British society in the era of the great war, (Harlow: Pearson, 1996); p.276.

[25] Vera Brittain, Testament of youth, (London: Hachette Publishers, 2009); pp. 252-253.

[26] Sandra Gilbert, ‘Soldier’s Heart, literary men, literary women, and the Great War’, in Margaret Higonnet et al, (ed.)s, Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars, (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1987), pp.197-226; p.202.

[27] Michael C. C. Adams, Echoes of War: A Thousand Years of Miltary History in Popular Culture, (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2002); p. 185.

[28] DeGroot, Blighty, p.200.

[29] Richard Reiss, The Home I Want, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1919); p. 3.

[30] Peter Vansittart, Voices of the Great War, (London: Random House, 2003); p. xi.

[31] Joanna Bourke, Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain and the Great War, (London: Reaktion Books, 1996); p.62.

[32] Jessica Meyer, Men of War: Masculinity and the First World War in Britain, (Basingstoke: MacMillan, 2009); p.102.

[33] Bourke, Dismembering the Male, p.62.

[34] DeGroot, Blighty, p.290.

 

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