The Home Front during the Great War

In hindsight, maybe one of my (self) criticisms of Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes is that I didn’t look enough at the social factors behind some of the stories, in particular, I maybe should have added a chapter on Portsmouth society leading up to 1939-1945, to give some kind of background to the inndividual stories.

So while I’m beginning to write the chapters for my next book, I am also doing a fair bit of research into the social history of Britain – and Portsmouth – at war between 1914 and 1918. What can we find out about Portsmouth society in 1914 that sheds light on the more than 6,000 people from Portsmouth who were killed? I think it’s something that a lot of military historians tend to ignore, but it is crucial if we are to understand unique institutions that are the British Army and the Royal Navy in the Great War, then we need to grasp an understanding of the broader society that these soldiers and sailors came from; how it shaped them, and how it dealt with their losses. Surely if you’re going to look at the war diary of a Pals Battalion on the Western Front, you need to give due credence to the local Newspapers from around the time that it was formed?

The standard text for looking at the Home Front during the Great War is still Arthur Marwick’s The Deluge, almost 50 years after the first edition was published in 1965. And there are a plethora of other books that are pretty interesting on the subject too. It’s a rather intriguing sense of de-ja-vu, having done a lot of research on social history and war whilst at University. Of course, on the flip side, social historians tend to snigger at anything that strays too much into the military sphere. One lecturer at my alma mater thought that the most significant thing about the First World War was that women began smoking and riding motorbikes. Apparently the millions of men killed weren’t too significant.

I must confess I had never really thought about the home front during the First World War. We think of the Home Front and we think of 1940, the Blitz, and Roll out the Barrell. Yet social phenomena that are usually associated with the Second World War – such as rationing, aerial bombing, war socialism, government intervention, welfare, registration to name but a few – first occured over 25 years earlier during the Great War.

Just a stab in the dark, but I actually suspect that in terms of social change, the Great War had a much bigger effect on Portsmouth than the Second World War. Not only from the more than twice as many men who were killed, but the disruption and dislocation to communities changed Portsmouth forever from what had been more than a century of constant development centred around the Royal Navy and the Dockyard. Portsmouth in 1914 was remarkably similar to Portsmouth in say 1860, or certainly after the Great Extension of the Dockyard. Yet the Portsmouth of 1939 was very different indeed.

To paraphrase Churchill about Alamein, it might not have been the end, but it was certainly the end of the beginning.


Filed under portsmouth heroes, social history, Uncategorized, World War One

31 responses to “The Home Front during the Great War

  1. John Erickson

    I’d love to see more about the social history leading into WW1. The whole ’30s thing has been pretty well covered here in the States between FDR bios, New Deal tales, and such. I’d love to see more about US pre-WW1 history, considering that most books kind of hop from the Span-Am war directly to our studious avoidance of WW1. I’d love to see more history on pre-war social trends, as opposed to the seemingly endless discussions about all the treaties and political subterfuges.
    Speaking of social history, any good recommendations for a 20s and 30s history of Britain? I’m trying to spread my history knowledge across the gap. 😀

  2. Stuart

    One point where military and social history of wartime interact is in recruiting, particularly in Military Service Tribunals. These were the bodies that reviewed appeals against the call-up from men who did not want to be conscripted from 1916-1918. I would definitely recommend reading up on these (in Adrian Gregory’s ‘Last Great War’ and James McDermott’s book on the MSTs in Northamptonshire) and looking into the tribunal in Portsmouth. The discussions and decisions there give fascinating into wartime society and attitudes. Very few (c2%, maybe more in a city) of those appealing were conscientious objectors, most sought to avoid service because of familial or financial obligations. The accounts in newspapers and in the few remaining official records are fascinating.
    (I did my DPhil thesis on Essex during the war and the voluntary and conscript recruiting processes were the bits I found most interesting)

    • John Erickson

      Stuart, might I inquire if there are any books covering the role of Conscientious Objectors in the British Army? There are some short books, told from the view of Amish and Quakers here in the States, that not only reveal a good deal about the social climate, but also of the military mindset against COs. I’d be interested to compare the British experience to the American stories I’ve read. Thank you!

      • Stuart

        There are quite a lot of books about COs in the UK. The best recent one is ‘Telling Tales About Men’ by Lois Bibbings, a very readable academic book that sets out their context and treatment well.

    • James Daly

      There is indeed a file on the Portsmouth tribunal in the History Centre here, and I am planning to have a look at it sometime soon. Some of my colleagues have looked at it and by all accounts the Portsmouth tribunal members were particularly brutal in their interrogations. I am wondering if there are any men who went before it, had their appeals turned down, were sent to the Army and were subsequently killed in action? Would make for a very interesting case study.

      • Stuart

        It would be interesting to see how they compared with other places. It is worth bearing in mind that most people were granted exemptions from service by the tribunals but press attention focussed on Conscientious Objectors, who were generally harshly treated in 1916. The overall picture is usually more considered, often the harsh language belies relatively generous decisions. There is probably something to be gained from looking at traditionally military/naval towns and their attitudes (although Colchester doesn’t seem much different to other Essex towns in its tribunals’ approach).
        There will undoubtedly be men who were not spared and lost their lives. I identified a few for the wesbite on the Chelmsford War Memorial website., but was surprised how few of the war dead were tribunal appellants from 1916 (the period when there is a full archive record of them). A majority of appeals were accepted in some form, but a lot of men were sent to the forces – often after having been made exempt for 6-12 months.

  3. Juliet Gardiner was on Andrew Marr’s Start the Week programme on BBC Radio 4 a few weeks ago. She said that she was working on a book about the British Home Front during WWI.

    • x

      Professor Hunt (Keele) has a body of work on gendering the voice of the consumer during WW1. She wasn’t too happy with my comment of “Oh, you mean women food shopping….”

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  6. Jim McDermott

    To add to what Stuart mentioned, probably the two best (that is, even-handed) works on British conscientious objectors during WWI are Rae, ‘Conscience and Politics’ and Kennedy, ‘The Hound of Conscience’ (the latter concentrating more upon the No-Conscription Fellowship)

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  10. John Sadden

    There is a chapter on the Portsmouth tribunal and its decisions in Portsmouth and Gosport at War (Amberley, 2012), (a history of the home front in the First World War) though this is based on newspaper reports of their deliberations as, when it was originally written in the 1980s, the tribunal records were not available. It seems clear to me that the tribunal saw its role simply as one of recruitment, which was perhaps not surprising in a garrison and naval port.

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