The Scope of War Work

By Dr. Richard Batten, PhD History, University of Exeter

The 4 August 2014 marks the centenary of when Great Britain declared war against Germany. In Britain, this event will usher in four years of commemoration of the conflict from 2014 to 2018. The First World War is commonly associated with the experiences of the British Army on the Western Front and the images of trenches, barbed wire and machine guns. However, this is not the full story of the British experience of the conflict.

From August 1914 to November 1918, the British population who remained at home contributed to the war effort through a variety of activities which constituted to the war work. Across the width and breadth of the British Isles, both the scale and scope of these various initiatives was impressive. In fact, the sheer scope of the various forms of war work provided individuals who could not volunteer into the British Armed forces with valuable opportunities to not only participate with the war effort but also present their patriotism. Forms of wartime participation included collecting eggs to feed the troops, harvesting of sphagnum moss to use as a temporary medical dressing, knitting scarves and socks for the troops and picking blackberries to turn into jam which was sold in aid of the war effort.

These activities were all part of a great flowering of imaginative charitable and philanthropic activities to support the war effort. In addition, men who were unable to fight in the Army or the Navy could claim citizenship in the wartime community by forming committees and societies to help those affected by the war or to organise resources in order to benefit for the war effort. In many instances, women took an active role to work for the war effort. They enlisted into women wartime organisations which ranged from agricultural entities such as the Women’s Land Army to medical organisations including the Voluntary Aid Detachment.

Simultaneously, women became involved with the production of shells, munitions, gas masks and other products that were essential for Britain’s military forces of and the British Empire during the Great War. At the same time, children were encouraged to support the war effort not only through fundraising for different wartime charities but also within their educational activities in school. The great range of different forms of war work reveals the level of support for the war that was invested by civilians. This meant that instances of war work were a distinctive and important part of life on the British Home Front from 1914 to 1918. With the centenary of the declaration of the First World War, now is the time for the stories to be told of the men, women and children who contributed to the war effort in various forms of war work on the British Home Front.