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How did World War One impacted British society?

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History: How did First World War impact British society?

British society was greatly affected during and after World War One in many different ways. In fact this war was a “total war” that forced Britain to use all its material, financial and human resources. The whole British society endured a heavy burden and was irreversibly transformed. Finally, the First World War triggered the end of the Victorian and Edwardian order and led to a modern 20th century society.

 First, we will talk about how World War One disrupted the old order and how new claims came in, particularly from both workers and women. Then, we will talk about how necessary changes transformed this society in a more democratic one and how powerful media helped this evolution by creating a public opinion. Lastly, we will talk about how World War One led to the growing state’s interference in people’s daily lives.


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        To begin with, World War One, as a “total war”, changed everybody’s life on the battlefield but also at home: the whole British society suffered but workers and women were more impacted and new aspirations appeared.

First of all, this total war led to a strong class consciousness from involved workers. In fact, before conscription a major part of the army was made of volunteers coming from the working class. It was seen as an opportunity for regular wages, travel and incredible experiences they didn’t have access at home. They could also join with friends and family thanks to the “Pals Battalions”.  Above all, many of these men engaged to serve their country by duty. Indeed, a huge patriotist feeling quickly rose and crushed the few pacifists. The cohabitation between the workers and people of the upper classes in the trenches led to cross-class experiences. As these people were fighting together, eating together, or simply living together, the workers wanted at the end of the war the same rights as their trenches’ friends. Moreover, the early enthusiasm quickly disappeared as the number of casualties was increasing and only disillusion was left. Indeed, most of the soldiers coming back were either injured or shell-shocked. People did no longer trust their institutions and therefore people were asking for more rights and some reforms. The Unions’ influence among the workers was rapidly increasing during the war (membership rose from 4, 1 million in 1914 to 6,5 million by 1918). Thousands of strikes occurred from 1918 to 1921. Furthermore, most of the soldiers fighting weren’t allowed to vote.

However, men were not the only one affected by the war. The women’s situation greatly evolved thanks to World War One. First of all, there was a change in the employment distribution. As the men were fighting, the country needed someone to work to supply the troops with munition, protection, or even food. These employment opportunities were offered to women, as it granted them some better wages, better working conditions and independence. They were no more considered only as domestic servants and housewives. Indeed, between 1914 and 1918, 2 million women replaced men in the factories, but also in the civil service, docklands and arsenals, tramways, Post Offices and farms... Some joined the Women’s Land Army or the Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs). Women proved their worth in the war effort but there were difficulties. In fact, some male workers, even in trade Unions, were worried about “dilution” (using unskilled workers with lower wages).

After the war, many women were expected to return to their traditional roles. Even though, it was not wholly voluntary, most of them went back home. In fact, the contracts of employment during World War One and the Unions were only “for the duration of the war”. Moreover, the closure of the day nurseries prevented employed mothers from work. Furthermore, these women were accused of stealing the men’s jobs. On this subject, women also were divided; for example, single or widowed women were claiming a prior right to employment. As a result, a few setbacks occurred at the end of the war: single women insisted on excluding the married ones, such as for female civil servant and for female students who were no more accepted in the hospitals.

Nevertheless, in the end, female workers managed to challenge the gender order: they were earning much more than before, they were able to carry out some skilled work. They gained also more independence concerning the way they were behaving in public and in clothing (trousers were acceptable, corsets were less used and short hair became fashionable). The War forced Unions to deal with female workers because of feminist pressure and the threat of separate women’s Unions: as a result, female trade union membership rose from 357 000 in 1914 to over a million by 1918 (An increase by 160% compared to 44% for men). Despite some setbacks, women’s lives and status were definitely changed and new claims had to be taken into account.


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        After World War One the British society had to be reformed. People who had fought could have more rights. This change was achieved thanks to progressive political reforms supported by powerful media and as a result, society became more democratic.

Firstly, these political reforms, which transformed this society into a more democratic one, were achieved with the lobbying of the feminist movement, the Labour Party and the Unions. Indeed, when in 1917 there was a need to call an election, a huge problem appeared. In fact, according to the law, only men who had been resident in the country for 12 months prior to the election could vote. This meant that most of the soldiers, that is to say most of the possible voting population, could not vote. In fact, many of them had fought for a country that denied them the vote! It forced the government to reconsider this law. At the same time, the arguments of Milicent Fawcett, Emmeline Pankhurst and their suffragettes were persuasive enough to convince the Liberal leader, Asquith, to grant a minority of the women the vote. It was not a fully satisfactory result but it was still a huge progress. Furthermore, the Unions were also extremely important. Indeed, it was representative of most of the workers and it greatly developed during the war.  The Union leaders were so influential that they held high political offices, including membership of the War Cabinet itself. At the end of the war, these Union leaders were self-confident and powerful. Britain had before the war a constitutional government, but was not a full democracy. Finally, in 1918, “the Representation of the people Act” changed the voting system. Women aged 30 or over and men aged 21 or over were given the vote. Women were also allowed to stand as MPs. But there was on the condition that you were a house owner or married to one. It led to a raise from 7, 9 million to 21, 4 million men and women who were allowed to vote.  It was not until 1928 that women over 21 were finally allowed to vote. It remained a lot to do but it was a big step and there was no going back.


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