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The war and the changing face of British society
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The war and the changing face of British society


The First World War had a profound impact upon British society. It swept away much of the old Victorian and Edwardian order and established many of the features that we associate with 'modern' 20th-century Britain. The scale and duration of the conflict with the Central Powers was such that, for the first time, the whole of British society was mobilised for what historians have termed 'total war'.

These changes did not take place overnight in August 1914. It was a gradual and cumulative process, governed more by reactions to events than by any grand strategy. The central agent of change was the British state. In the early stages of the war, its role was largely confined to security issues such as the Defence of the Realm Act, censorship and aliens. But from 1915 onwards, state power was extended into new areas.

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Increased munitions

By 1915 there was a pressing need to mobilise greater human resources to keep pace with escalating production demands in the war industries. The Glossary - opens new window'shell scandal' of May 1915 revealed that competing firms were producing poor-quality munitions in wholly insufficient numbers.

The Asquith government subsequently created the first of the new Glossary - opens new windowwar ministries, the Glossary - opens new windowMinistry of Munitions under Lloyd George, which intensified munitions production with considerable success. Output increased enormously. Up to April 1915, just two million rounds of shells had been sent to France. By the end of the war, that figure stood at 187 million rounds.

Munitions of War Act - opens new window
Munitions of War Act

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Women in the labour force

The acute labour shortage that became apparent in 1915 also led to another radical departure from the pre-war order: the large-scale employment of Document packwomen in industry. From 1 June 1915 - when they were first employed in munitions factories - to the end of the war, at least one million women were added to the British workforce. Half of them were employed in manufacturing jobs, largely in the munitions industry, that had previously been seen as an almost exclusively male domain.

The important contribution of women to the war effort was at least partially recognised in the 1918 Glossary - opens new windowRepresentation of the People Act, which extended the franchise to women over the age of 30.

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Seismic shifts
Rationing poster - opens new window
British society was changed by its wartime experiences in other ways, too. State intervention was extended into areas such as rent control (1915), conscription (1916), price control (1917), rationing (1918) and even alcohol dilution. The war heralded seismic political shifts: the collapse of the Liberal Party, the rise of Labour and Britain's first near-democratic franchise.

More generally, as some observers noted both during and after the conflict, the First World War broke down some - though by no means all - of the class-based habits of deference that had characterised Victorian and Edwardian Britain. The blood sacrifices of the British people demanded some form of 'democratic' payback. The coalition government that emerged from the Glossary - opens new window'coupon election' of December 1918 thus charged itself with the task of creating a 'land fit for heroes'.

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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.

CAB 21/84: Material on a scheme for compulsory rationing, 1917-18.
HO 185/228: Alcohol Committee: correspondence and memos, 1916.
MAF 60: Various information on the introduction of rationing in Britain, 1916-18.
MUN 5/10/180/17: Minutes from the government and trade union conference on mobilising the war industries, Mar 1915.
T 172/214: Deputation from the Wine and Spirits Trade Association on the effect of drink on the war industries, 9 Apr 1915.


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