The British Home Front during the First World War

Britain went to war on 4 August 1914. The German invasion of Belgium, the independence of which Britain had guaranteed in 1839, united the nation behind the Liberal government of Herbert Asquith. Many in Britain, as in the other warring nations, expected the war would be a short one, with the Allies quickly triumphing over Germany. There was a great deal of patriotic fervour, whipped up by the popular press and politicians, and exemplified by a rush of men to join up. In the event, the war was to last for over four years and it was to change the cultural, economic, political and social fabric of Britain forever.

In Britain’s previous wars, the civilian population had almost been untouched. Now civilians were in the front line as East Coast towns came under bombardment from German warships, and London and other cities and towns were subjected to aerial attacks from airships and aeroplanes in which 1,414 were killed and 3,416 seriously injured. German unrestricted submarine warfare resulted in the loss of many lives, seriously threatened Britain’s food supplies and led eventually to the introduction of nationwide rationing in 1918.

Many other wartime measures affected the lives of ordinary people, including the Defence of the Realm Act, licensing laws and the introduction of conscription in 1916. Under Asquith’s successor, David Lloyd George, a much more centralised form of government was introduced. The war also brought about the emancipation of women and a general loosening of both the class system and morals.

Defence of the Realm Act

The outbreak of war brought many new rules and regulations, the most notable being the Defence of the Realm Act, (DORA), passed on 8 August 1914 'for securing public safety'. It regulated virtually every aspect of the British home front. Though it was originally intended to control sensitive military information, as the war progressed its scope greatly expanded.

DORA gave the government the power to prosecute anybody whose actions were deemed to 'jeopardise the success of the operations of His Majesty’s forces or to assist the enemy'. This gave the act a very wide interpretation. Press censorship was introduced and the freedom of movement curtailed. People were forbidden to loiter near bridges and tunnels, and even whistling for London taxis was banned in case it should be mistaken for an air raid warning. Conditions of work were strictly controlled and a blackout introduced in certain towns and cities. In May 1916, British Summer Time was instituted, a measure that is still in practice today.

DORA also intervened in British drinking habits. By the spring of 1915 claims were made that war production was being hampered by drunkenness, leading to pub opening times being reduced and alcohol strength reduced. And in July 1916 DORA Regulation 40b was passed making possession of cocaine or opium, other than by authorised professionals such as doctors, a criminal offence.

During the First World War state regulations established a control over the British people which, although relaxed in peacetime, was never to be removed.

WW1 Facts and Figures.

  • 56,703 Fatalities of British and Commonwealth service personnel.
  • 2,090,212 Number of wounded in the British Army.
  • 8,975,954 Number who served in the British armed forces.
  • 256,000 Horses and Mules died on the Western Front.
  • 192,000 British Army Soldiers taken as Prisoners of War.
  • 14,166 Royal Flying Corps Pilots Killed.(over 50% in training)
  • 14,166 Merchant Seamen lost at Sea.
  • 7,800,000 Tonnage of British merchant shipping lost.
  • 75,000,000 Hand Grenades manufactured by Britain.
  • 170,000,000 Artillery Shells fired on the Western Front.
  • 68 years old, the oldest soldier to die; Lt Henry Webber.
  • 240,000 Soldiers who became amputees.
  • 1 in 2 A British soldiers chance of being killed, wounded or captured on the Western Front.
  • 58% of British Soldiers wounds caused by artillery fire.
  • 78 British Generals killed.
  • 179 British Army Chaplains killed.
  • 628 Victoria Crosses awarded.
  • Death Sentences; More than 3,000 British Army soldiers were sentenced to death after Court Martial, with 346 of them facing firing squads. Offences included Desertion, Murder, Cowardice, Leaving a Post, Mutiny, Sleeping on duty, Disobedience and striking a superior.
  • British Summer Time was introduced to allow longer working hours
  • Worldwide Casualties; 1,000,000 civilians killed through military action. 6,000,000 civilians killed by illness and starvation. 9,800,000 military deaths.20,000,000 military personnel wounded
  • The War lasted 1,568 days.
  • The Great War Timeline starting June 1914 Click here to read more...