Life At Home During The Great War

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In our history lesson on the First World War (1914-1918) we learned about life in the trenches, where soldiers lived in fear of disease such as trench foot, whilst fearing, and suffering, enemy attack. We learned to recite poems of McRae’s ‘In Flanders Fields’, Sassoon’s ‘How to Die’ and Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’:

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning....

It’s the horrors of war and the devastation of its aftermath that take priority in school history lessons, as is so every year in memorials. We wear red paper poppies in November, vow to never forget and pay our respects to the millions of unnamed soldiers who sacrificed their lives for their country.

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Yet, there is another aspect of life during World War One. History classes transport us to the frontline where the action was. What about life back home during the war? What did the people who remained at home do? If many young and able men went off to fight who took on the jobs needed doing at home? How did the culture change? What did people do in their leisure time?

It’s the Second World War that wartime escapism through culture is often associated. However, during the First World War (‘the Great War’) leisure activities and outlets for creativity were very much a part of life back home and acted as tools of diversion, prompting national pride and hope, and strengthened the bonds of the home front.

The Great War was not the end of everything. Cultural entertainment continued, although tinged with a patriotic influence. Literary works and poetry, theatre, music and motion pictures adopted a militant vision of society. Schools, the press and popular literature drew heavily on anti-foreign and patriotic sentiments, making it easy to demonise the German enemy. Military music and anthems were played on the radio and there were musical performances held for large audiences.

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The standard of living changed for the better. Work ethic improved and the mass unemployment of the pre-war years disappeared. Life expectancy at home increased and infant mortality lowered.

Women developed an independence during the war. The Suffragette Movement  had a turning point in 1912, two years before Britain declared war. Women used militant tactics, chaining themselves to railings, setting fire to letter boxes and breaking windows. The fight for women’s rights was long and difficult but with the declaration of war, there came an opportunity for women to see what they could achieve in fields familiar and ‘unknown’.

Many women took on ‘men’s jobs’. Women became clerical workers, bus and tram conductors, worked on the land and even joined the engineering sector. With many men sent away, women became more liberated. Short skirts and short hair became fashionable. Some women started smoking in public.

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The BBC TV series, The Village depicted 20th century life in a small village set in Derbyshire. Written by Peter Moffat and starring Maxine Peake the series begins in 1914. Herbert Asquith is Prime Minister, war is about to be declared but things in the village stay as they are.

As part of the research for her role, Peake visited museums to gain a sense of what life was really like ‘back then’. She discovered that the bathhouse was social hive for the women of the village. Bathhouses provided a space to relax and unwind. Men went to bathhouses too or headed off to the pub, although pub hours were shortened and beer was watered down, inevitably resulting in better health.

The impact war had on society changed certain aspects forever. Attitudes towards the female sex had begun to shift in their favour and culture was used to keep morale on a high during the long four years. For some, life carried on as usual, although opportunities to present themselves and subtle changes to their lifestyle worked out for the better towards the end.

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Much can be learned about life during the war from records and newspaper archives. Researching your family history learn about the legacy left by your ancestors could uncover more facts about life during the First World War.

Nina Koo-Seen-Lin (c) August 2013

Nina Koo-Seen-Lin is a writer and book reviewer. She blogs and twitters regularly at @Nina_Koo and  http://kookvtoon.blogspot.co.uk/

Administrator’s Note: 2014 is the centenary of the declaration of war by which Great Britain entered into war with Germany, in the war that became known as ‘the Great War’. Memorials and remembrances will be many. The WHN Blog will ensure that women’s role – both in supporting the war and in taking a stand against it in advocating ‘peace not war’ and establishing organisations such as The Women’s Peace Army and WILPF – Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom – is recognised. This is the first of such blogs as an ‘introductory’ piece. JAS