London, 11 November 1918: A happy crowd atop a US automobile, on the day the Armistice was signed

After the War was Over

9th November 2018

The Great War changed Britain – it would have been impossible for it not to, with the death of so many in a generation. It altered the role of women, influenced social mobility and paved the way for the roaring twenties, the Depression and, ultimately, World War II. To mark the centenary of the ending of World War I, Jennifer Lipman looks at what happened to society

“The Armistice was signed at five… the War ceased at eleven,” announced Lloyd George, as the ‘war to end all wars’ came to an end. Yet it wasn’t the final war and, while the conflict may have abated, its legacy ran deeper.

Britain emerged from four years of fighting as the victor, but bearing scars that indelibly shaped society in the decades to follow. “It affected everybody, in a way nothing much else had ever done,” explains David Stevenson, Professor of International History at LSE. “Almost every family would have had a member in military service, either in active service or on the home front. And almost every community lost people. So the psychological impact is just enormous, and the experience of the 1920s and 1930s is people trying to come to terms with it, to cope with grief and loss on that scale.”

On top of the vast casualties – about 900,000 British soldiers, out of 16 million globally – hundreds of thousands more returned severely wounded or suffering from what we’d now label post-traumatic stress disorder. “The visible scars of battle on so many of those who returned were a constant reminder of the damage the war had inflicted,” says Dr Julie Moore of the University of Hertfordshire and the AHRC’s Everyday Lives in War centre. “In addition, there were the less obvious mental scars which meant many men found it very difficult to pick up the lives they had left behind.”

How to remember the dead was a key question in the aftermath, and the response to the first world war has shaped Britain’s culture of public mourning ever since. The first two-minute silence took place in November 1919 before becoming annual; by 1921 poppies were on sale and the Cenotaph swiftly became a permanent memorial in response to public demand.

This is hardly surprising; as Michael Noble, Community Liaison at the Centre for Hidden Histories explains, the war was a uniquely communal experience. “Every family was touched by it, whether they had somebody go and serve, or they had to change occupation, or were involved in some of the ancillary activities like fundraising,” says Noble.

Life, to an extent, went back to normal: work, marriages, babies, scandals. But starting afresh was not always simple. “Some who were conscripted found on their return that the business they had built up before the war had failed whilst they were away fighting,” says Dr Moore. Others left for the trenches as schoolboys and returned to face the decisions of adult men.

Many also returned changed by what they had seen and who they had met. “For some [the war] was the first time outside of their region, if not their town,” points out Noble. “They mixed with people from different parts of the country, different class backgrounds, and from all over the world.” Even on the home front, people travelled more than before; mobilised, for example, to work at munitions factories.

Many were the women left behind, who by 1918 finally won the right to vote – thanks, so the story goes, to having rolled up their sleeves to staff the munitions factories. Yet the reality is more complex. For one, the suffragette campaign significantly pre-dated the war; for another, not all were new to employment. In 1914 most working-class women were already earning a living, in cotton or textile factories or in domestic roles. “The nature of the work changed but it wasn’t the first time women entered the workplace,” says Noble, pointing to anecdotal evidence that two munitions factories were located in Nottingham partly because of the city’s female-led lace industry workforce.

Nevertheless, the war led to professions like clerical work becoming female-dominated, representing a profound shift. And, as Dr Moore explains, for some women it broke down barriers to employment, or “changed their assumptions and ambitions as new careers opened up”. Many “found themselves taking on more of the running of family businesses as husbands, fathers, sons were required to join the military”, while others gained confidence from wartime volunteering or committee roles. “Some went back to their pre-war lives when the armistice came, but others ventured into new areas of public life on parish, town and county councils.”

Meanwhile, six years after the armistice, the first Labour government was in power and the Liberals were on a permanent downward trajectory. “Pre-1914 Labour was already rising at the Liberals’ expense… but it’s hard to imagine it happening as early without the war,” says Professor Stevenson.

One driver of this was that post-war Britain remained firmly hierarchical, despite the sacrifice that had been demanded from men of all classes. The war contributed to a raised class consciousness, seen initially with rioting in cities in 1919. As the economy faltered, with a revolution afoot in Russia, “there was a sense of injustice, that we had all pitched together, the country asked for something and now the country isn’t giving us anything in return,” says Noble. “That was mixed up with social tensions.” Sloganeering about homes for heroes “didn’t often fit with the reality of what people experienced in peacetime. There was a sense that they were owed something.”

Soaring trade union membership during the war paved the way for a series of strikes in the early 1920s and the general strike of 1926, although it was short-lived; by the 1930s, high unemployment had stripped the unions of this power. Indeed the Depression, whilst a global event, can nonetheless be traced back to the war. As Professor Stevenson explains this had largely been financed by borrowing, leaving peacetime politicians with huge national debt and a commitment to cutting spending “One of the reasons the Depression is so severe is it’s hard for Governments to spend on public works because they have already borrowed so much, they don’t have the manoeuvre room.”

If society was shaped by the war experience, so too was British identity; with England, Scotland and Wales edging closer together as Irish nationalist sentiment strengthened. As with Labour’s rise, this was on the ascendant before the war, but was arguably accelerated by it, culminating in the bloody partition of 1921. In India, nationalist feeling was also stirred up; in part, explains Noble, because Indian troops were “led to believe it would make them more British and earn them a greater degree of respect, but that didn’t come off.”

Britain’s dominions – Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa – took heavy casualties, having been forced to join the fight, permanently marking their relationship with the crown. Significantly, after the armistice, the law was changed to allow them to stay neutral should Britain declare war.

Perhaps the biggest impact was in how Britain approached the next war; politicians of the 1930s, says Noble, had clear memories of the bloody trenches of the previous war. In many cases, they had direct frontline experience. With appeasement, they were trying to heed a ‘never again’ lesson.

Amongst the wider population, there was a mixed view. “Certainly there was a sense of ‘we’ve beat them before, we can beat them again’,” he says. For some men, who had grown up hearing of paternal exploits, there was a sense of ‘my turn’. But if the initial verdict was that the war had had a purpose, by the 1930s, it was increasingly seen as futile. All that bloodshed hadn’t even made the world a safer place. “That change has been of permanent importance,” says Professor Stevenson “The first world war becomes a lesson about the futility of wars in general.” From Britain’s opposition to the Vietnam War to recent conflicts like Iraq, that lesson remains potent.

A century on, we’re still debating whether it was pointless, with working class men ‘lions led by donkeys’, or whether it was necessary despite its cost. We will never have a clear answer, but what is undeniable is that the shock of those brutal years went far beyond the battlefields. As Noble says, “it might be easier to ask how it didn’t affect Britain…”

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