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A patriotic home front
The war and the changing face of British society
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A patriotic home front?


The patriotic buoyancy in Britain in the summer of 1914 - the Bank Holiday crowds cheering the declaration of war on 4 August and the rush to enlist in Kitchener's New Army - was soon challenged by the harsh realities of the First World War. In Russia, these realities led to the collapse of the tsarist regime and Communist revolution. In contrast, Britain seemed to endure the hardships of the war with relative equanimity. What was the reality behind this façade?

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Civilian morale

Britain had been conditioned to meet the challenge of war. Schools, the press and popular literature all encouraged a militarised vision of society in which war was glorified. Pre-war organisations such as the Glossary - opens new windowNavy League and the Glossary - opens new windowNational Service League numbered more than 100,000 and 220,000 members respectively. British popular culture drew heavily on anti-foreign and patriotic sentiments that made easy the demonisation of the German enemy during the war.

Civilian morale, however, could not be sustained in such a long conflict by patriotism alone. It also needed a material basis. Paradoxically, the First World War was a period of rising living standards and new opportunities in Britain. The mass unemployment of the pre-war years disappeared. Women joined the labour market in large numbers for the first time. Life expectancy (outside the trenches) increased and infant mortality declined. Falling levels of alcohol consumption improved general health.

Alcohol consumption report - opens new window
Alcohol (162k)

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Air raids and grievances

Nonetheless, there were a number of potential breaches in Britain's united home front. The breezy optimism of August 1914 was quickly shattered by the heavy British death toll on the Western Front and by the fears evoked by German Glossary - opens new windowZeppelin and other Spotlights on historyair raids, which killed more than 2,000 civilians during the war.

Such misfortunes only confirmed the desire of many British people to prosecute the war against Germany to the bitter end. In others, however, they engendered more questioning attitudes about how the war was being run and - in a minority of cases - about the wisdom of the war itself. Grievances that began to emerge in 1915 included the looming prospect of conscription, rising food prices and revelations about war profiteering.

Particularly disturbing for the government was the growth of labour unrest. In 1917, roughly 200,000 workers in 48 different British towns went on strike. Their grievances, however, were largely non-political, relating to such issues as wages, food prices, war profiteering and exemption from military service. The strikes were rarely characterised by explicit anti-war or revolutionary sentiments. By the autumn, they had already passed their peak.

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Easter Monday Rising - opens new window
Easter Rising
The most gaping hole in Britain's patriotic home front was the issue that had preoccupied politicians before the war: Ireland. In November 1914, with the encouragement of the former British diplomat Glossary - opens new windowSir Roger Casement, Germany declared its backing for an independent Irish state. However, after Casement's arrest and without German support, the Glossary - opens new windowEaster Rising in Dublin in April 1916 went ahead with a depleted force of just 1,000 rebels and was ferociously crushed by British troops.

This brutal response - along with unpopular extension of conscription to Ireland in April 1918 - radicalised Irish political opinion, pushing to the fore the Glossary - opens new windowSinn Fein movement and setting in train the series of events that led to the creation of an independent Irish state in 1921.

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Further research

The following references give an idea of the sources held by The National Archives on the subject of this chapter. These documents can be seen on site at The National Archives.

EXT 1/315: Anti-strike posters issued by the Ministry of Munitions during the First World War.
HO 45/10810/312350: Report of the Royal Commission on the Rebellion in Ireland, 24 Jun 1916.
HO 144/1636: Various papers on Sir Roger Casement, 1916.
MUN 5/80/341/6: Reports on imminent and existing strikes, Dec 1917-Dec 1918.
MUN 5/349/341/1-3: Strikes in South Wales, Southampton and Clyde, 1915.


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