6 Ways World War One Transformed British Society | History Hit

6 Ways World War One Transformed British Society

A soldier of the Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment) being waved off by his mother.
Image Credit: Imperial War Museum / Public Domain

World War One shaped Britain in a myriad of ways: the whole country had experienced a war which affected every man, woman and child in some capacity. As such, the conflict led to social upheaval and cultural changes on a scale not previously seen in such a concentrated period of time.

As Europe began to examine the damage done once the armistice was signed in 1918, it became clear that a new world was on the cusp of emerging. An entire generation of young men had experienced the horrors of war first-hand, and many were struggling with psychological and physical trauma as a result. Many women, on the other hand, had experienced their first taste of independence.

The changes sparked by the war proved to be long-lasting and powerful. The balance of power shifted from the aristocracy to the hands of the ordinary people, gender imbalance became a greater issue as women refused to be constrained by the shackles of domesticity and people became determined not to repeat the mistakes of the forefathers who had led them into World War One.

Here are just 6 of the ways in which World War One shaped Britain culturally, politically and socially in the years after 1918.

1. Female emancipation

Whilst most women did not fight on the front lines of World War One, they were still heavily involved in the war effort, from nursing and ambulance driving to working in munitions factories. These weren’t necessarily glamorous jobs, but they afforded women a degree of independence, both financially and socially, that proved to be a taster of what was to come.

The campaign for women’s suffrage was bolstered by the contribution of almost every woman during World War One, ‘proving’, as it were, that women were valuable beyond domestic spheres, that they were a crucial part of Britain’s society, economy and workforce. The 1918 Representation of the People Act extended the franchise to a fraction of adult women in Britain, and the 1928 Act extended this to all women over the age of 21.

Later, the 1920s saw a cultural reaction against the constraints of society from many younger women: bobbed hair, higher hemlines, ‘boyish’ dresses, smoking and drinking in public, courting several suitors and dancing wildly to new music were all ways that women asserted their newfound independence.

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2. The development of trade unions

Trade unions had begun to be formed in earnest in the late 19th century, but World War One proved to be a turning point for their development and importance.

World War One required huge amounts of labour, particularly in factories, and there was full employment across the country. Mass production, long working days and low wages, combined with often hazardous conditions in arms and ammunition factories in particular, saw many workers take an interest in joining trade unions.

Trade union leaders were increasingly included in politics as those at the top realised that they would need their cooperation in order to achieve targets and keep making profits. In turn, union cooperation saw many places of work gain a level of democratization and social equality once the war was over.

By 1920, trade union membership was at its peak for the early 20th century, and unionisation continued to be a powerful way for workers to have their voices heard, shaping mid-century politics in ways that would have been unthinkable pre-war.

3. The extension of the franchise

Although Parliament had existed in England since the 13th century, voting had long been the reserve of the elite. Even in the 19th century, men could only vote if they met a certain property qualification, effectively excluding the majority of the population from voting rights.

The Third Reform Act of 1884 extended voting rights to around 18% of the population in Britain. But it was in 1918, with the Representation of the People Act, that all men over 21 were finally granted the right to vote.

After decades of agitating, the act also enfranchised women over 30 with certain property qualifications. It would not be until 1928, however, that all women over the age of 21 were able to vote. Nonetheless, the Representation of the People Act drastically transformed Britain’s landscape. No longer were political decisions made solely by aristocrats: citizens from across British society had a say on how the country was run.

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4. Medical advances

The slaughter and horrors of World War One’s battlefields proved fertile grounds for medical innovation: the sheer number of casualties with life-threatening injuries allowed doctors to trial radical and potentially life-saving surgeries in a way that peacetime would never have afforded them the opportunity to.

By the end of the war, major breakthroughs had been made in plastic surgery, blood transfusion, anaesthetics and the understanding of psychological trauma. All of these innovations would go on to prove invaluable in both peacetime and wartime medicine throughout the following decades, contributing to longer life expectancy and subsequent breakthroughs in healthcare.

5. The decline of the aristocracy

World War One radically affected class structures in Britain. Warfare was indiscriminate: in the trenches, a bullet would not distinguish between the heir to an earldom and a farmhand. Huge numbers of heirs to Britain’s aristocracy and landed estates were killed, leaving something of a vacuum when it came to inheritance.

Wounded soldiers at Stapeley House during World War One. Many country houses were requisitioned and used as hospitals or for military purposes.

Image Credit: Public Domain

The extension of the franchise took more power from the hands of the aristocracy and placed it firmly in the hands of the masses, allowing them to question and challenge the establishment, holding them to account in ways they could never have done before the war.

War also offered the prospect of social and economic advancement for many as soldiers rose through the ranks to obtain high-ranking positions, the prosperity and respect of which they brought back home to Britain.

Lastly, a chronic lack of servants following the end of the war also proved to be a slow nail in the coffin for the upper classes, whose lifestyles were predicated on the idea of labour being cheap and easy to obtain and servants knowing their place. By 1918, there were more opportunities for women to be employed in a role which wasn’t domestic service, and there was little appeal in the long hours and drudgery that servants in large houses often endured.

As a result, many of Britain’s country houses were pulled down between 1918 and 1955, viewed by their owners as relics of the past that they could no longer afford to keep up. With their ancestral seats gone and political power increasingly concentrated in the hands of the ordinary people, many felt Britain’s class structure was undergoing a radical transformation.

6. The ‘Lost Generation’

Britain lost over a million men in the war, and a further 228,000 died during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. Many women were widowed, and many more became ‘spinsters’ as the number of men available to marry dropped dramatically: in a society in which marriage was something all young women were taught to aspire to, this proved to be a dramatic change.

Similarly, millions of men returned from the Western Front having seen and suffered unimaginable horrors. They returned to Britain and beyond with an array of psychological and physical traumas to live with.

This ‘Lost Generation’, as they are often dubbed, became one of the driving forces for social and cultural change in the postwar era. Often described as restless and ‘disorientated’, they challenged the conservative values of their predecessors and asked questions about the social and political order which had caused such a terrible war to come about in the first place.

Sarah Roller