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World War One was one of the most groundbreaking and innovative changes that the world saw in the twentieth century. Through the causes of World War One and intense preparations, emerged a whole new world full of complete and utter heartbreak. While comes to no surprise that young men were certainly the prominent group that had experienced first hand the worst of the worst out in the trenches, across the globe, people of all ages and genders also endured other major changes in all aspects of their lives. Among those were women and children at home that were yet to face the horrifying truths and suffer the devastating consequences of warfare in both social and economical ways. While men fought for their country on the battlefields, women and children were left behind to fulfil their roles in society.
The war on the western front was a modern kind of warfare, something no one had experienced before. The main changes that soldiers had to adapt to were the techniques used during the First World War, particularly connected to trench warfare. With new technology, came new consequences. Soldiers were prone to dangerous attacks, resulting in inhumane ways of dying. Constant shelling and gas attacks made a great deal of men feel that death was imminent while others dealt with mental breakdowns and illnesses. However, the worst was yet to come for those that survived. Life in the trenches was far worse than any human should have to endure. With mud rising up to their knees and feet deep in blood stained pools of water, thousands suffered from ‘trench foot’, caused by standing in water for long periods of time. In summer, the smell was appalling due to a combination of rotting corpse’s sewage and unwashed soldiers. In winter, trenches offered little to no protection from the cold, causing frostbite. Trenches were also infected by rats. Hygiene was practically non-existent. On top of food rations being extremely basic and designed only to keep the soldiers alive, it was definitely far from the ideal living conditions. Above all, the thing that caused men the most grief and pain was the constant fear of death and the struggle of holding to their humanity. In an unseen transcript, a German soldier recalls the moment he bayoneted a foe to death quoting, ‘I remembered then that we were told that the good soldier kills without thinking of his adversary as a human being…he was nothing like me but a poor boy who had to fight, who had to go in with the most cruel weapons against a man who had nothing against him personally, who only wore the uniform of another nation, who spoke another language, but a man who had a father and mother and a family perhaps and so I felt…I woke up at night sometimes drenched in sweat because I saw the eyes of my fallen adversary, of the enemy, and I tried to convince myself what would have happened to me if I wouldn’t have been quicker than he…We were civilised people after all.’ This quote is too long but I don’t know what to cut out. (Westmann, Stefan 2014) Needless to say, there is no doubt that soldiers suffered, carrying out their duties to their country in unimaginable conditions, forced to commit unspeakable acts.
The early rush of volunteers and later the conscription of men led to a shortage of manpower on the home front. As well as struggling to deal with their fears for the future, and the grief and trauma of losing loved ones, women, already working in munitions factories were encouraged to take on jobs normally done by men. Many women also contributed more actively to war efforts through military service such as being a nurse. This was the start of major social change. Before the war, women had been content to stay at home to bring up the family and do domestic work. It was considered unbecoming for a woman to work. During the war, it was considered unpatriotic not to. Many changes came about, ‘women became more independent. Women paid for their round at the pub. Fashion changed for practical reasons: never again did skirts sweep the ground.’ (A.J.P, Taylor, English History). However, These were jobs for the war, not for life. Even though ‘women beat a path to the doors of the authorities, begging to be allowed to assist, to help win the war, to give of their talents’ (Adam-Smith, Patsy 1996, Australian Women At War), women were expected to ‘step down’ and return to home duties after the war. Many had enjoyed participating in the workforce, even after receiving lower wages for doing the same work, and thus began some of the earliest demands for equal pay. In the end, it was ultimately the hardworking women that carried out the labour and the country’s burdens on their shoulders, responsible for running a country without the authority and presence of men.
Millions of civilians helped the war effort by working in industry, agriculture or jobs left open when men enlisted, but children also rallied to ‘do their bit’. Like adults, they were caught up in war fever after hostilities broke out in August 1914. Many wanted to join the army, including nine-year-old Alfie Knight from Dublin. In a letter to the Secretary of State, he volunteered his services as a front line despatch rider, stating points such as “I would kill a good vue of the Germans…I want a uneform and a revolver and will give a good account of myself.” If the boy had spelling and grammar errors, do I leave it like that? (Knight, Alfie What do I do if I don’t know the date?) Though these qualities were sought after in boys of at least eighteen years of age, some as young as twelve succeeded in enlisting by lying about their age. Sometimes this was knowingly overlooked by recruitment officers, due to the continuous demand for soldiers. Boy Scouts, Girl Guides and Sea Scouts were the first youth organisations to provide practical assistance to the British war effort. Guarding railway tracks and stations, telephone and telegraph lines, water reservoirs or any location that might be militarily important were just some of the jobs dedicated to Scouts. From late 1917, many also assisted with air raid duties. Some Scouts were even trained in fire fighting. Sea Scouts were part of a network of observers that stood watch on the coast. Girls were responsible for assisting with the food, clothing, accommodation and healthcare of both soldiers at the front, or war veterans. Children younger than the school leaving age of twelve also worked in factories or on farms. In 1917, Education Minister H.A.L Fisher claimed that as many as 600,000 children had been ‘prematurely’ put to work. From giving pocket money to collecting scrap metal, children were just as determined to contribute to their country’s war effort.
The First World War was a cataclysm that disrupted countless lives, brining change upon everyone involved. While men put their lives on the line, widows and orphans were left to fend for themselves in a society that was highly men orientated. However, both women and children entered the work force at a staggering rate after the war broke out, doing their best to contribute to the war effort. This triggered the one of first realisations of inequality between genders. No matter the gender or age, people suffered in many ways, such as physical and mental trauma. Millions of men were exposed to the horrors of war, having no choice but to face it with courage and hope that they might one day return home. Whether it was at the western front or the home front, the overwhelmingly cruel truth was that there was no escaping the tragedies and changes that arose between 1914 and 1918, everyone was impacted in some way or another.
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