What was it like for men and women on the home front?

“Where do all the women who have watched so carefully over the lives of their beloved ones get the heroism to send them to face the cannon? I am afraid that this soaring of the spirit will be followed by the blackest despair and dejection. The task is to bear it not only during these few weeks, but for a long time- in dreary November as well, and also when spring comes again, in March, the month of young men who wanted to live and are dead.” – Kathe Kollwitz, German Artist, 1914

We have always known that being in war has been a traumatic experience for soldiers on the front line but not many people realize that it was just as awful for the men and women on the home front. Life on the home front was only marginally less emotionally taxing than life on the front line. War impacted every man, woman and child. There was a constant threat of bombs, and the ever-pressing fear that your loved one would not come home. A general depression set over the populace, and with rationing, constant worry and general terror, life at home was hardly pleasant.

Men who did not go to war were often looked down upon for being cowardly and weak. They were seen as having no patriotism. Men were treated worst of all by the women. During World War 1 women used to give white feathers to men who stayed behind. These white feathers were a sign of cowardice and pacifism. Being given a white feather was incredibly serious and was a disgrace to be given one.

Women felt as like it was their duty to blackmail men into the military. It was also a form of patriotism. Men felt disgusted by the treatment women gave them but there was nothing they could do about it.

Another method of blackmail involved the women acting incredibly friendly towards the men. They would start walking up to the men with a broad smile on their face making the men think that they knew her. When they were five meters from him they would change their facial expression to a look of disgust. This made them feel even worse as it made them wants to curl up and disappear.

A novel by A.E.W Mason, entitled “The White Feathers” was popular at the outbreak of World War One, and aids this belief. It tells the story of a man, who resigns from the British army and tries to return home from a war in Sudan. He is presented four white feathers; three from his comrades, who think he is a coward and one from his fiancé who breaks off their engagement. In order to win her back he must go back to the army, and eventually prevents the destruction of his unit. Admiral Charles Penrose Fitzgerald used the idea of the white feathers to try and drive able-bodied young men who had not yet signed up into conscripting. On 30 October 1914 Fitzgerald ordered 30 women to present men who were not in uniform with white feathers.

Fitzgerald believed that it would shame men into going to war, as they had “a danger awaiting them far more terrible than anything they can meeting battle.”In a way, The White Feather Campaign gave women a sense of power and patriotism, as even though they could not fight, they could still help out in any way they could, and they almost had a power over the men, as men presented with a white feather would almost certainly then be forced to sign up in the hopes of re-claiming some of their honour.

In Figure 1 we hear about a fifteen year old boy, Ronald Shepherd, who received a total of three white feathers.  In this article we also hear about His friend Bernard Sills who committed suicide after he received a white feather. This article gives us a good idea of how serious it was to receive a white feather. Many people killed themselves because they could not live with the shame of having received a white feather. This also tells us of the age people would receive the feathers. Anyone who was not on the front line would receive one no matter their age or physical condition.

Many young men who had not been conscripted due to failing their medical exam, because of poor eyesight, muscle weakness and suchlike, were heavily ostracised by their peers. Older men felt as though by staying at home they were not doing enough to help their country. It was considered your duty to go off and fight, and men who shirked this particular duty were thought to lack all honour.

Figure 2 illustrates what the shame of not being able to go to war would drive some men to do. Many young men’s families felt that serving for your country was a great honour, and you brought shame not only on yourself but on your family by not being able to join. I am certain that Rudyard Kipling was not the only one to lie and bribe to get his son conscripted, and his story also shows that medical exam sare there for a very good reason.


If any question why we died,

            Tell them, because our fathers lied.

Figure 2- By Rudyard Kipling, in his collection of war epitaphs. It is believed to be written about his son, who was killed in World War I. Kipling believed that there was great honour in fighting for your country. However when his son tried to enlist, he failed medical exams at the navy and military service due to his poor eyesight.  Kipling could not deal with the shame of his son not going to fight, so he asked his friend, Lord Roberts who was colonel of the Irish guard to let his son join. His son was killed in the Battle of Loos, after a shell ripped his face off. It is believed that whilst laughing at a joke, his glasses fell of, and when he went to retrieve them he got in the way of a shell.

There were also pacifists, especially in Britain, who refused to have anything to do with the war. They went to such an extent that they even refused to peel potatoes for the army. The pacifists were not large in numbers. Throughout the war only about sixteen thousand known pacifists were recorded. Despite their numbers they posed a large threat to the army itself.

The main reason these pacifist refused to have anything to do with the army was for religious reasons. On the day that war was declared Bert Brocklesby said, “God has not put me on this Earth to go destroy His children.” With this argument he and many others refused to help the army in any way.

In the beginning of the war all these men could expect was white feathers being given to them and petty verbal abuse on the streets. By Christmas 1914, when it was clear the war was not going to end soon, everything changed. As the number of British casualties rose in 1915-1916 the treatment of these men became harsher. If someone was known to be a pacifist they ran the risk of being assaulted and thrown in jail for the most trivial of reasons.

In Figure 3, we get evidence of the previous statement. Men and women were killed for being Conscientious Objectors and it wasn’t kept a secret either.

There was also a constant fear of being attack or bombed by the opposition.

When the men went off to battle, many of them left jobs behind. Jobs suck as postmen, policemen, factory workers, farm work and suchlike would need to be fulfilled, and the only people left to do them were women. World War I almost coincided with the Suffrage, which had been around since the late 1800’s, but only became more demonstrative in 1903. Emmeline Pankhurst, who was a suffragette leader and a great patriot actually moved to stop the suffrage during the war, as she felt that every citizen should be united under a common goal to defeat their country’s foe.

However as the suffrage put ideas into people’s minds about the capabilities of women, women were allowed to take up these jobs. Source C shows some women policemen, a first for the time. Women taking up traditionally masculine jobs catapulted women’s right to the forefront after the war, and moved the population into the more modern and liberal mindset of the 20s. Source D further proves this point.

“The war revolutionised the industrial position of women. It found them serfs and left them free. It not only opened opportunities of employment in a number of skilled trades, but, more important even than this, it revolutionised men’s minds and their conception of the sort of work of which the ordinary everyday woman was capable.”
Millicent Garrett Fawcett, prominent suffragist, 1920

Figure 4- Quote from a newspaper about how the war began to change people’s opinions about women. See Source C for explanation

World War 1 created many opportunities for women. With most the men on the front lines there was not enough labour force to occupy all the jobs. Women were now employed to do jobs that were previously seen as ‘male’ jobs. Examples being: bus conductors, secretaries, telephone operators, office cleaners, shop assistants, police officers, postal workers and most importantly munition workers.

Figure 5- Photograph of female police officers during World War I. Because the men who had jobs such a postmen, policemen, factory workers and suchlike had gone off to war, jobs previously reserved only for men became available to women. The First World War coincided with the popularization of the Women’s Suffrage, and many women jumped at the chance to finally been seen as a bit more equal to men.

Working in ammunition factories was risky business but it was the most widely spread way of showing their patriotism. It made the women also feel as if they were helping their husbands on the front line.  Over 300 women died from TNT poisoning as well as factory explosions. Some developed lead poisoning or other chemical related diseases. Their hair would fall out and their skin would turn yellow. This is why they got called canaries.  The most dangerous work was filling shells with explosives and closing the shells.

The clothing and shoes were fireproof, as you can see in Figure 6. When the workers went out for their breaks they would have to take off all their fireproof clothing and they put on their outdoor clothing. When their break was over they had to put their fireproof clothing back on and they would be checked for matches, cigarettes, pins, etc. This process was repeated every time the women went on their breaks.

In the beginning of the war there were very few explosions due to the fact that the women did their work very thoroughly but that changed quiet soon. Later on women started getting paid bonuses after they had filled a certain amount of shells. This lead to sloppiness and carelessness. The result of their sloppiness was the shells coming back either to light or too heavy. Therefore, the amount of shells filled and closed daily decreased. Their carelessness also lead to an increase in explosions.

Women now felt like they had a purpose. They felt like they were making a change in someone else’s life instead of just theirs. However these women were looked down upon by society. People, especially men, thought they were too well paid and that they were getting ahead of themselves. Men also took place is strikes because they were jealous and scared they would loss their jobs to be replaced by a women.

Women also worked in the land army. The land army was created to increase farm production to provide the country with more food. Mostly ‘city girls’ joined the land army. Once again men weren’t too happy about this as they believed this would lead to unemployment for the men who came back. Again they also believed women were becoming too independent.

The men and trade unions saw women as a threat to the privileges they had formed over decades. They were indead a threat to the system they were used to. The Qualification of Women Act of 1917 and The Representation of the People Act of 1918 meant that in the general election of 1918 women over thirty years old could vote and be voted for. This was a huge step forward in the liberation of women.

Women writers were also influenced by World War 1. Catherine Reilly’s 1981 anthology,Scars Upon my Heart: Women’s Poetry and Verse of the First World War, is the first study strictly dedicated to examining women’s poetry and prose from World War I. In it, she argues that pieces written by women was overlooked because it was thought that men’s writing was of more importance. Many other historians agree that women had a powerful literary voice, that until about 1980s had been ignored.

The term ‘home front’ carried a gendered aspect that refers to the atmosphere of the war as masculine and the home as feminine. Susan Kingsley Kent argues that, “women at the front represented the war with a tone and imagery “markedly dissimilar” from those at home.” This was reflected in women’s writing.

During the War, the acts of women were being published by women in different forms of media, for example women’s magazines. Due to this women’s writing was more wide spread than most people think.  Poems were published during the war but only one-fifth of those were written by active service members. Nosheen Khan estimates that over one quarter of the poems published during the war was written by women.

British women actively documented the war experience from home and on the battlefield. These works documented experiences these women had firsthand. For example, accounts of interaction with wounded soldiers, life in the trenches, and such like. They are important documents as they provide a new perspective on issues concerning Britain’s role that the documents men wrote did not have. Therefore, poetry and prose produced by women between 1914 and 1918 contributed to a richer and more accurate understanding of the war that we did not have when we just studied the work by men.

One of the greatest fears a female writer had during and after the war was that their works would fall into obscurity. In 1949, Vera Brittain noted that she was anxious that most female literature would not survive because it was overshadowed by the documents written by men. This theory was proven correct, as interest in Women’s writing did not grow until the early 1980s when historians began examining the politics of gender and war.

Feminist historians have claimed that women’s writing from during the time of war gave a more authentic representation of the war. The women who served in non-combative roles such as ambulance drivers, nurses, and munitions workers all provided a unique perspective of life during this time. Women’s writing often repeated the same themes. Women who wrote about war shared themes of patience, loss, and grief.

Children were also affected by war. Many were evacuated into the countryside, even though there was no real chance of aerial bombings. Although evacuations were not as widespread as in World War I, they did occur. Children were mainly sent to rich country homesteads, and were treated more as servants than as guests. Obviously they were taught to be patriotic in schools and suchlike, but one cannot imagine the emotional toll of waving goodbye to your brother, father, uncle, cousin and not knowing if you would see them ever again as they went off to go fight a war that you did not fully understand.

Rationing was also a large part of World War I. At the start of the war, even though there was no real danger of running out of food, panic buying led to DORA (Defence of the Realm Act) implamenting self-imposed rations. However in 1916 actual food shortages were a reality.

In 1916, Germany launched unrestricted “U” Boat (submarine) attacks on enemy ships in the Atlantic Ocean. Britain imported most of their food from America and Canada, meaning that the ships had to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Many merchant ships were lost because of this. In the April of 1916, Britain only had 6 weeks of grain left. As bread was a staple part of most diets, this caused a huge problem.

Figure 7-  A British propaganda poster promoting rationing, created from 1916 onwards. The “U” Boat refers to German submarines. At the beginning of World War I food was not a problem, although the threat of German “U” Boat campaigns led to panic buying food, so DORA (Defence of the Realm Act) introduced self imposed food shortages.  During the war the British imported most of their food, mainly from Canada and America, meaning that the ships had to cross the Atlantic ocean. This caused no problems until 1916, when Germany introduced unrestricted submarine warfare and sank many of the ships carrying food. Food supplies had to be rationed so that nobody in Britain would starve.

DORA tried to introduce voluntary rations, so essentially people would just have to regulate by themselves what they ate, and try to eat less. Source B shows a propaganda poster promoting this. These rations, despite being endorsed by the Royal Family, did not work. DORA also converted a large amount of British land into farm land, as they were working very hard to make sure that nobody in Britain starved.

In conclusion, despite what soldiers such as Siegfried Sassoon thought, people who stayed at home were not oblivious to the horrors of war, and faced many horrors of their own. However nothing is without advantage, and the First World War gave the Women’s Movement the leg up it needed, and when women won the vote in 1928, I am fairly certain the some of the credit comes from how they proved themselves as capable and useful during the war.