How the First World War shaped our lives

Danny Scott / 05 November 2018

From a war chiefly remembered for unprecedented loss of life came also radical change. Women were no longer confined to the home, battlefield developments in medical care became mainstream, the way we eat changed and slang from the trenches became commonplace. Danny Scott delves into the archives.



A century ago this month, the First World War came to an end. It had lasted more than four years and cost the lives of 16 million men, women and children. The total number of casualties – including the wounded and missing – was 37 million. That figure hardly needs putting in perspective; however, the Office for National Statistics estimates the population of the UK was 39 million in 1918.

This was the first war that featured large- scale, conscripted civilian armies. These new recruits were sons, brothers, uncles and fathers. Ordinary people from ordinary towns. In 1914, the British Army numbered less than 100,000 men. By 1918, a quarter of the male population were in uniform.

As such, this global war also became a very personal war, affecting almost every aspect of everyday life in Britain. The greatest impact was, of course, heartbreak and loss. A dead husband. A brother, suffering from shell shock, shot as a coward. A father, missing in action. Schooling was interrupted as children found themselves planting potatoes or working in mines. Industry focused on the war, churning out bullets, guns and tanks, but with hardly any men to fill those factories, women were welcomed on the shop floor.

The war changed what we ate and how we ate. It gave us American movies and chewing gum. New fashions on the high street. There were advances in medicine and communications. And it gave us the humble tea bag. Or did it? There is some debate about that, as we’ll find out later.

Women to the forefront

Even someone with only a passing interest in history will know that the First World War dramatically changed the lives of British women. Although they had been a major part of the workforce since the 19th century, they were now doing men’s jobs in the munition factories. There was more awareness of maternal and infant welfare. The Widow’s Pension was introduced in 1925. And they were given the vote!

But Maggie Andrews, professor of cultural history at the University of Worcester, challenges the idea that the war kicked open the door for women.

‘It’s really not that simple. Yes, there was an increase in women on the factory floor, but the figures were back to pre-war levels by the mid-1920s. And although some women did get the vote in 1918, many women were still excluded because they were under 30 or too poor.

‘Perhaps the real changes were more understated. More than 18,000 charities and organisations such as the Women’s Institute were started during the war and these gave ordinary women – not the aristocracy or the upper classes – their first taste of running a meeting. They were fundraising, organising the collection of clothing for men at the front. For years, these women had run the household, now they were bringing those talents to the public sphere. Suddenly, women had a voice.’

That voice was heard across the political spectrum and was undoubtedly the driving force behind the (limited) suffrage victory and Parliament welcoming its first female MP in 1919.

With more women on the factory floor, there was a need for childcare. By the end of the war, more than 100 day nurseries had been set up for women in the munitions industry. Following the introduction of Women Volunteer Police at the start of the war, the Metropolitan Police got its first full-time women special patrols in 1917. Women became bus conductors and drivers. After the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act in 1919, we had the first female magistrate, Ada Summers.

For Professor Andrews, one of the most surprising improvements was what she calls the right to leisure. ‘Millions of women were now going out to work, going to WI meetings – the WI was responsible for building a lot of the early village halls – whist drives, drama groups and choirs.’

Many factories even started their own women’s football teams: the famous Dick, Kerr’s Ladies FC in Preston was founded in 1917. In 1920, they played what is generally accepted as the first ladies’ international match, when they beat a French team 2-0.

‘These women had started coming together during the war and they wanted to have fun,’ says Andrews. ‘That might be a football match, a concert or simply a case of finishing work at the factory and going to the pub. After a hard day on the assembly line, these munitionettes would go for a drink. Thanks to the war, you had respectable women – shock, horror – drinking in public!’

On the kitchen table

Although food rationing wasn’t officially introduced until 1918, the conflict still had an enormous effect on the food we ate and was responsible for a few culinary ‘revolutions’.

The shortage of meat meant that vegetables became the order of the day and there was a constant search for meat-free or low-meat foods. This led one enterprising German, Konrad Adenauer, to experiment with high-protein soy sausages. Although they weren’t strictly meat-free – they contained a small amount of mince – Adenauer’s wartime efforts led to him being generally regarded as the father of the veggie sausage.

Of course, vegetables needed gardens. But what if you didn’t have a garden? Allotments were already available to the poor working class; then came the Land Settlement Facilities Act in 1919, which included ex-servicemen. This paved the way for the Allotments Act of 1925 and the set-up we recognise today.

The arrival of stainless steel – accidentally invented by a Sheffield metallurgist working with the British military – meant that housewives would eventually be cooking those vegetables in stainless-steel saucepans.

And British kitchens were also becoming much more adventurous. ‘The arrival of overseas foods is generally linked with the 1930s,’ explains food historian and TV presenter Dr Annie Gray, ‘but I’m convinced it came about as a direct result of the war. All those young men, stationed in France, developing a taste for vin blanc and truite meunière.

‘America was also included in that exotic new culinary world and Britain was introduced to its first “fad” diet. The Hollywood Diet involved nothing more than grapefruit and coffee.’

And what about the tea bag? Yes, it is one of the inventions regularly attributed to the war and packing tea in individual portions did become popular in the post-war years, but the Chinese were doing it in the 8th century!

A way with words

Military historian Martin Pegler has been researching the First World War for more than 40 years. He’s written several books on the subject, including Soldiers, Songs and Slang of the Great War.

‘Whenever a body of people come together, they invariably start developing their own words and phrases,’ says Pegler. ‘And armies are no different.’ But what’s surprising is just how many of the battlefront words and phrases are still in use today.

Over the top Literally to climb over the parapet to launch an attack, usually a failure. Its meaning gradually changed and, today, it’s used to describe something as excessive or unfair.

The third light It is still considered by many people bad luck to light three cigarettes from the same match or lighter. It took an average sniper about three seconds to spot a burning match.

Bumf Used to describe reams of useless paperwork or unwanted flyers. Abbreviated from ‘bum-fodder’, paper only good for one purpose – the production of which the Army excelled in.

The catwalk Now used in the fashion industry, it originally described a brick or timber pathway laid over mud. So named because of the ability of cats to walk along narrow walls.

In the pink Meaning ‘I am very happy’, it was the most frequently used sentence in letters home by all ranks. In fact, it was a slang term for sex and the rest is best left to the imagination!

Unexpected benefits

The First World War’s full impact on the everyday lives of the British public would fill several volumes. Disastrous battles such as the Somme and Passchendaele changed the way wars were fought, armies were organised, and soldiers were promoted – these days, you’re promoted because you’re good at your job, not because your father is Lord So-and-So.

There were tanks on the frontline, portable X-ray machines in the military hospitals, better-designed prosthetic limbs and pioneering plastic surgery for the wounded soldiers. The first blood bank was established on the Western Front in 1917. The Thomas splint – invented by Welsh surgeon, Hugh Owen Thomas – reduced the death rates for men with a broken femur from 80% to 20%.

Cellucotton – an absorbent cotton substitute made from wood pulp – was first used as wadding for surgical dressings, but Red Cross nurses started using it for sanitary towels. Under the brand-name Kotex, they appeared in American shops in 1919.

Women working in factories during the war got used to wearing looser-fitting, less formal clothing, leading to new fashions on the high street. Many people saw their first zip fastener on US uniforms. Servicemen who needed to synchronise assaults began wearing wristwatches, rather than the cumbersome pocket watch.

After the war, long-range bombers were used for passenger flights and, briefly, Cricklewood Aerodrome, next to the Handley Page Transport factory, became the centre of the British aviation industry. Although cheap flights were some way off, a London to Paris service was established in 1919. The return fare was £42 – the equivalent of just under £2,000 today.

The beginnings of mental healthcare

As Professor Maggie Andrews pointed out earlier, not all the changes brought about by the war made the headlines. Some brought gradual change, but they were still as important.

‘In 1914, shell shock, mental health and depression were poorly understood by the military,’ explains Martin Pegler. ‘Men suffering from shell shock could easily find themselves in front of a firing squad. By 1918, that rarely happened. Although the military doctors didn’t understand shell shock, they were beginning to realise that it was very common, and it was real.’

The poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon were both hospitalised with shell shock, and Owen’s famous poem, Dulce et Decorum Est was written at Craiglockhart Military Hospital near Edinburgh. After the war, several special clinics were opened across the country and, in 1919, the Ex-Servicemen’s Welfare Society – known today as Combat Stress – was formed to provide care and support for veterans.

‘Finally, the medical professionals were taking these men seriously and trying to understand what was happening to them,’ says Pegler. ‘It was a slow process, but I think this was the beginning of a greater understanding of shell shock – or post-traumatic stress disorder – and mental health in general.

‘It’s just a shame that it took so long. I interviewed a lot of veterans in the 1970s. They had survived, but I am convinced that every man who fought in the First World War came back damaged in some way.’

When I’m asleep, dreaming and lulled and warm,–
They come, the homeless ones, the noiseless dead.

From the poem Sick Leave, by Siegfried Sassoon, which was written in Craglockhart Military Hospital, 1918.

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