The First World War transformed the world forever. The conflict itself resonated through the remainder of the century and set events in motion that have informed the world we live in today. Some of the consequences are obvious – the map of the world, for example, looked very different from four years earlier, and by the time the victorious allies had finished tinkering with it.
The pace of social change accelerated in most places. In Britain, women had taken many jobs whilst their men were away fighting, would go on to achieve the vote and, eventually, a more equal place in society. The rigid class system was challenged by an enlarged franchise, new attitudes and opportunities – and by virtue of the fact that the war threw men of different backgrounds together to a degree that had never really happened before. And through the 1920s and 30s large country estates began their inexorable decline as their owners could no longer afford the upkeep, pay the increasingly crippling levels of taxation – or perhaps they had lost their heirs in the mud and slaughter of France and Belgium. Domestic service, in which 1.3 million had been employed in 1901, gradually began its decline, eventually ceasing to be normal after another great war (there were still a million employed in domestic service in 1931). A further consequence was that a good proportion of the population was actually healthier and better fed – partly because the government had an inevitable vested interest in the welfare of an awful lot of people during the war. The provision of canteen facilities at factories, for example (largely government sponsored), was a practice that was continued by many employers in peacetime.
British Summer Time, introduced in 1916 to help productivity, and British licensing hours (introduced for a similar reason) are two quirks that remain with us – though the licensing hours have been greatly relaxed in the 21st century.
Conflict often acts as a catalyst for the seemingly relentless drive of technology, and the First World War certainly did that. Not all advances had purely military applications: improvements in powered flight, for example, came to revolutionise global communications and travel. In 1919, 10 years after Bleriot flew across the English Channel, Alcock and Brown crossed the Atlantic and regular passenger services began between London and Paris. Medical developments – such as the first tentative forays into modern reconstructive surgery and psychoanalysis – paved the way for more progressive treatments.
The economic cost of the war was enormous. All of the major combatants were hugely in debt – with the exception of the USA. Inflation dramatically increased the cost of living – most famously in Weimar Germany, where hyperinflation meant that, by December 1923, a loaf of bread cost 428 billion Marks. (That’s probably at least 428 billion Euros in today’s money.) The First World War abruptly ended a period of relative economic prosperity for many, replacing it with two decades of relative economic misery (though the employed middle class was largely immune to this). Britain wasn’t economically destitute at the end of war, but was forced to sell overseas assets, exports were massively down and unemployment was at around the million mark for all of the 1920s, rising to 3 million in the early ’30s.
The war caused a profound upheaval in the international balance of power. Of the five Empires that went to war, only one, the British, remained intact when it was all over. Germany was exhausted, its population starved by the Royal Navy’s blockade, its Kaiser in exile in Holland and its fledgling republic at risk of social unrest, or worse. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, heir to the ancient Holy Roman Empire, had collapsed and the Ottoman Empire of more than 600 years lay in tatters. The Russian Empire had gone, replaced by the world’s first communist state, the Tsar and his family murdered – and the seeds of tension and mistrust immediately grew between two opposing philosophies – communist totalitarianism and developing democratic capitalism. Huge areas of northern France and Belgium lay devastated; France had almost been brought to her knees by the war. French and British overseas ‘interests’ actually grew as a consequence of redistributing defeated nations’ territories, particularly in the Middle East and Africa. But Britain’s Dominions had found increased confidence and cracks were beginning to show in the Empire on which the sun never set. Apart from its human losses, the United States emerged relatively unscathed and, if it had not been obvious before, was now clearly the industrial and economic power to be reckoned with. The shift in the balance of power together with the various peace settlements ironically helped set the scene for most of the 20th century’s future conflicts.
The victors’ approach to peace was a curious mixture of idealism, self-interest and lack of foresight. The principle of ‘self determination’, which should have resulted in nice neat countries all containing people of compatible cultures living together in joyful harmony, actually produced some rather strange anomalies – especially in the former lands of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. And France and Britain were perfectly happy to ignore the principle when it suited them; Britain, for example, added 13 million people to its sphere of influence, which included gaining a mandate over Palestine, Jordan and Mesopotamia (Iraq). Britain had also demonstrated either incompetence or dishonesty – possibly both – in promising Arab control of Palestine in return for military assistance against the Turks, whilst in the Balfour Declaration of 1917 simultaneously supporting the establishment of a ‘national home for the Jewish people’ in the same place. The consequences of this, at best uncoordinated, piece of international chicanery obviously remain with us. Rather more honourably, the victorious powers latched onto US President Wilson’s proposal for a League of Nations to help resolve future international conflicts. Unfortunately, this august body had even less teeth than its successor, the United Nations, and was considerably weakened by the USA’s myopic decision not to join.
New, independent, European nations emerged – Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.
The Treaty of Versailles with Germany, though, was a real corker. Largely driven by a French desire for revenge and the creation of a vanquished, weak, neighbour who could never again invade, Germany not only lost its overseas territories but was also forced to scrap its air force, reduce its army to no more than 100,000 regulars (conscription was prohibited) and to severely limit the size of its navy (eg no ships over 10,000 tons and no submarines). The provinces of Alsace and Lorraine were returned to France, with West Prussia and Pozen going back to the newly independent Poland – leaving East Prussia separated from the rest of the country. German military forces were prohibited from the Rhineland, which was to be occupied by Allied troops for 15 years. Then, just to make every German feel comfortable, Article 231 of the Treaty made it clear that the war had all been Germany’s fault. In view of that, it was only fair to make her pay for it; so huge reparations were levied too. Thus the seeds of resentment, to be inflamed by the rhetoric of a future German leader, Adolf Hitler, were sown. I’ve often thought that if they’d finished the First World War properly, then the Second World War could’ve been avoided…
Finally – what of the human legacy in terms of memory? There are around 100,000 war memorials in Britain, ensuring that we never forget the young men from every village, town and shire who perished. The widespread construction of these monuments was a unique occurrence; most of them were built in the 1920s. Death aside, there were 639,000 British ex-soldiers and officers still drawing disability pensions on the eve of the Second World War. That includes 65,000 men whose disabilities were not physical but mental. Some servicemen were so traumatised by their experiences that they spent the rest of their lives in hospital. I’ve met people whose fathers had recurring nightmares about the war until the day they died. After the war, there was an upsurge in interest in spiritualism, as many grieving parents, wives and siblings sought to reach out to their dead loved ones – of which more than half a million had no known grave that their relatives could visit. Many war widows never remarried, and many bereaved sweethearts remained spinsters. To these women, their lost men remained forever young, with posed sepia photographs taken in uniform during a brief leave often adorning sideboards until their owners too passed on. The memory of the First World War, and the desire that something like it should never, ever, happen again was a potent influence on domestic attitudes and foreign policy in the lead up to World War Two. And Britain still formally remembers the sacrifices of 1914-18, and subsequent wars, at 11am on the closest Sunday to the 11th of November every year.