How were civilians affected by the First World War?
How were civilians affected by
Aims of the lesson:
•To consider why and how food was
rationed during the war.
•To consider the impact of propaganda.
The First World War was a total war, which meant
that the entire population was involved and affected
– not just the front-line troops. The government
took control of many aspects of life which would
never have happened in peacetime.
Between August 1914 and March 1916,
2.5 million men volunteered for the British
army. The recruitment campaign launched
by the government in 1914 worked far
better than was predicted. Around
750,000 men joined up during the first few
weeks of the campaign alone. Sometimes,
whole groups of friends from one area
joined up together as a ‘pals’ battalion’.
However, despite the steady flow of
volunteers, there was a high casualty rate
at the front, so more troops were needed.
By late 1915, the British government was
considering conscription (compulsory
This was highly controversial and a debate
raged through the winter of 1915-16. the
original proposal was for only unmarried
men to be conscripted. However, by May
1916 the needs of war and unrest in Ireland
meant that the government was given the
power to conscript all men aged 18-41
under the Military Services Act. According
to the Act:
• Only men involved in ‘reserved
occupations’, such as munitions work or
mining, were exempt from military
Conscientious objectors (often known as
‘conchies’) had to appear before local
tribunals to explain why they refused to
fight. (Most conchies joined up to do war
work in the medical or support services.
About 1500 conchies went to prison until
the end of the war.)
Government control – DORA
In August 1914 the government passed the Defence of the Realm Act,
usually known as DORA. The Act gave the government wide-ranging
powers over the media, food production, industry and many other
• The government took over the coal mines. Miners were not
conscripted into the army and the government fixed profits and
• Similar action was taken with the railways and with shipping.
Early in 1915 it was clear that private enterprise was unable to supply
the munitions the army needed. David Lloyd George became Minister
of Munitions. He reorganised production and set up new state-run
factories. By the end of the war the government controlled about
Food and rationing
• DORA also allowed the government to take control
of food supplies. Britain did not suffer serious
shortages before 1916, but food prices did rise
dramatically (about 60 per cent). However, when
the German U-boats began to attack shipping on a
large scale the situation became serious.
• The government tried to increase food production
by bringing all available land into production (3
million extra acres of land by 1918). There were
also women workers in the Women’s Land Army to
help harvest the crops.
• However, this was not enough. Voluntary rationing
schemes in 1916 and 1917 did not work so the
government introduced compulsory rationing in
• Sugar, meat, butter, jam and margarine were all
rationed. As a general rule, most people supported
rationing because it was fair and kept prices under
• There was a black market in goods, but penalties
under DORA were very severe.
Civilian casualties were very light in
Britain compared to the military
casualties. Nevertheless, about 1500
civilians were killed by enemy actions:
• In December 1914 German
warships shelled towns in north-
• In January 1915 giant Zeppelin
airships began bombing raids on
England. They made a total of 57
• In March 1917 German Gotha
bombers began the first of 27 raids
on British towns.
DORA allowed the government to control
newspapers and other media during the war.
There was censorship, particularly of the
national press. The pacifist newspaper the
Tribunal was shut down and the Socialist paper
the Daily Herald was closely monitored.
However, the general impression of historians it
that British people and publishers largely
supported the war effort.
• After the war, twelve newspaper owners were given
knighthoods for their wartime services. Circulation of
patriotic newspapers such as the Daily Express went up
dramatically during the war.
• Leading authors – Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy and H.G.
Wells – all produced patriotic material for no fee. These
were bought in their thousands.
• Propaganda was aimed directly at children through books,
games and toys. This seems to have been the most
• Patriotic films such as For the Empire and The Battle of the
Somme reached huge audiences at the cinema (possibly 20
million for The Battle of the Somme). These films were not
produced by the government by they were distributed by
the War Department. It is also worth noting that The Battle
of the Somme was a more realistic view of warfare
compared to some of the earlier films made during the war,
even though many of the scenes were faked.
How did women contribute to the
When Britain went to war in August 1914,
women seemed no nearer getting the vote.
Despite this, the women’s movements threw
themselves behind the war effort. Of course,
even more women who were not part of the
suffrage movement also threw themselves into
the war effort.
Women on the front line
Women did not fight in the trenches but
they were close to the front-line action.
• The British army soon copied the French
system of hospital units in France and
Belgium staffed mainly by female nurses.
• Thousands of women worked for
voluntary organisations. In France and
Belgium, the Salvation Army provided
soup kitchens, many of which were run
by women, for convalescing soldiers and
front-line troops as well.
• The Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps
(WAAC) was formed in 1918. These
women worked mainly as drivers,
secretaries and officials on the Western
Women and recruitment
• Women members of the
Active Service League
encouraged young men
• The Mothers’ Union
criticising mothers who
stopped their sons
Women and war work
• Government departments took on
200,000 women during the war.
• There was a bit more resistance to
women workers in industry. Trade
unions feared women would work for
less and wages for make workers
would drop. However, by the end of
the war hundreds of thousands of
women were working in industry. For
example, 800,000 women worked in
engineering by the end of the war.
• Around 260,000 women worked on
Britain’s farms in the Women’s Land
Army helping farmers to produce as
much food as possible.
• Women even kept some of the works
football teams going during the war!
Women and munitions
The best known work done by
women was in the munitions
factories. Thousands of women
worked in private and
factories. On the one hand,
munitions work gave women
status and money. On the other
hand, it was dangerous work
because of the chance of
explosions and also adverse
health effects of dangerous
chemicals in the munitions.