Home > Memories > Did Many People Lead Better Lives Because Of WW1?

Did Many People Lead Better Lives Because Of WW1?

Few people experienced an improvement in their lives as a direct result of war; weaponry, in isolation, achieved little more than death, or injury, or relief for those spared its lethal intent. However a case can be put that that many people experienced an improvement in their lives as a result of one or more of the social, economic, and political repercussions of war; assessing its magnitude is not straightforward and needs to be assessed in the longer term, in the light of considerable opportunity costs, with an eye on what might have been had war not occurred and by acknowledging the many restrictions on personal freedom represented by the Defence of the Realm Act.

It can be argued that the majority of people within the Home Front were able to take advantage, sooner or later, of one or more of the repercussions of war stated above and thus feel that they were living better lives. Three of the predominant groups [with some overlap] for consideration are: the workforce in general, young children, and women who gained the vote.

During World War One the law of supply and demand began to favour a large number of workers. The absence of many young men at war abroad, together with the restructuring of the economy onto a war footing, provided many new and often lucrative employment opportunities. Much existing heavy industry was stimulated by the need for war materials. The main gainers in this changed market brought about by war were the unskilled workers; on average their wages more than trebled during the period 1914-1918. The skilled workers were not far behind; most of them found that their wages had more than doubled.

Behind such wage increases there was much social, economic and political aggravation.  Most members of the working class were aware that labour shortages, and the urgent desire of the Government to ensure that war work progressed speedily, put them in an advantageous position. Trade unions were aware of it. There was a growing feeling within this class that its home conditions, and general standard of living, were very inferior to those of ‘superiors’.  They wanted, and largely got, improved wages; the weapon used to achieve it was strike action; there were a huge number of strikes and mandays lost as a result.

Inevitably there was some degree of class bickering; a number of the wealthier classes had noticed the increased prosperity of many working class families and resented what they saw to be gains at the expense of the brave armed forces; as for the unions they were understandably pressing the advantage held by their members.

So wages increased for many but the cost of living rose significantly during World War One. Nevertheless on the whole workers, especially the working class, made significant economic gains enabling an improvement in their lives; more so those families with several earners.

For many of the workforce it was not merely increased financial prosperity that gave them a feeling of leading better lives; many women felt empowered and more recognized for their true worth. For many working class women the new job market was an escape from sweat shop monotony or deference driven work as servants; consequently they gained confidence from doing work previously thought by men to be beyond women. Such an increase in confidence was also felt by a number of middle and upper class women; many of those had the additional opportunity to escape the chaperone system and the power driven purse of fathers and husbands. So, with economic gains, increased recognition and a feeling of positivity it is fair to say that many women, of all classes, experienced better wartime lives thanks to forces brought about by war.

To a large extent the Home Front during World War One was a good time for young children, although some older children, having been drafted into early employment because of the effect of war on the job market, might not have viewed it that way. School meal provisions were improved and that enabled all pupils to have an adequate meal. New legislation was created to give local authorities the power to improve facilities for mothers and young children. Furthermore many parents, for reasons outlined earlier, had more money available to feed their families. Infant mortality rates continued to improve significantly. However it is reasonable to assume that there was a downside because of parental ‘work fatigue’ suffered by some of those working long hours; it probably led to poorer parental care of children.

It seems reasonable to draw the conclusion that the various Government initiatives aimed at young families were created to enable mothers to contribute to war work [or employment that enabled others to do so] and at the same time protect the health of the up and coming generation; after all many young men were dying when fighting at war abroad and replacements would be needed to replenish the population.

A controversy regarding the third major group for consideration, those women that gained the vote in 1918, concerns the timing of their triumph. Journalist Paul Foot expressed the thought provoking view that such women would not have gained the vote without the long years of struggle that preceded it, in particular during 1906-1914.

In their fight for the vote women did have influential male supporters before, during, and after the war, but the familiar argument that it was the need to revisit voting rights, in particular to address a problem regarding many members of the forces abroad [who were unable to comply with a residential requirement] that enabled some women to gain the vote when they did is very persuasive. In the sense that they achieved the vote, and therefore some influence over political matters, it can be said that their lives were improved because of a situation that developed owing to wartime. Of course many of them had gained in other ways, as expressed elsewhere in this piece.

Caution is necessary; assessing the extent of people leading better lives as a result of World War One is fraught with difficulties. Amongst the so called ‘winners’ there were a significant number of people that suffered, especially in the long run. In particular many of them lost their jobs owing to the very serious economic downturn in the post war global economy, the cause of which, in no small way, was World War One [although for a considerable number of women it was a case of handing back a job to men, as part of existing agreements made during WW1]. If unemployment did not catch ‘the better off’ out, war bereavement, or serious war injury to loved ones, might well have done so. As for the healthier, better fed children of World War One, with their childish gifts of perception and sensitivity, the presence of an unemployed parent, or disabled parent, would greatly affect some of them either physically [in the form of occasional hunger], mentally or both.

Moving on to the question of opportunity costs it is the case that huge sums were spent on financing the war. Minds should boggle at the thought of all the good that could have come from using much of that money to speed up anti poverty measures. “Better lives” could have been even better had war not broken out. Further analysis of opportunity costs, although desirable, is beyond the scope of this essay.

The argument that many people led better lives because of the repercussions of war, rather than war itself, is undeniable but it was a temporary gain for many and often at a cost for just about everybody; as for the armed forces at the front, war was frequently horrific, even for many that survived it.

The above essay [ minus some material that was used to support some assertions of mine – but left out because of potential copyright problems] was submitted and assessed by Reading University recently. I know that it is not the usual type of article designed for a memories site,  but I thought you might be interested in my reference to the conditions on the Home Front during World War One as well as some brief comments regarding the period that immediately followed it.

Best regards

WB

Categories: Memories Tags: ,
  1. WB
    June 8, 2009 at 9:43 am

    Essay
    Bibliography

    Brittain, V., 2nd ed. [2004] Testament of Youth, Great Britain: Virago Press

    Foot, P., Sisters At War
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2005/feb/22politicalbooks.bookextracts [accessed 18.05.2009]

    Gregory, A., [2008] The Last Great War, New York: Cambridge Press

    Hill, G., and Bloch, H., [2003] The Silvertown Explosion, Wiltshire: Tempus Publishing

    Marwick, A., 2nd ed. [2006] The Deluge, Great Britain: Palgrave Macmillan

    Morgan, K.O., 4th ed. [2001] The Oxford History of Britain, New York: Oxford University Press

    New Survey of London Life and Labour, Vol I, p115. Handout provided by Lecturer Mayer, A.

    Rundle.R., N., [1973] Britain’s Economic and Social Development, London: Hodder and Stoughton

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