World War I: The Home Fronts (1914-18)


Figure 1.--This photograph of well-scrubbed and neatly dressed boys in Cooperstown, N.Y., knitting sweaters for the slightly elder young men who were being sent into combat in Europe during World War I. They look as though they might be highschool boys of about 14 or 15. Perhaps their teacher suggested that they do this charitable job, knitting sweaters, usually reserved for women in the 1910s. The Junior Red Cross had a knitting program. I suspect that their teacher taught them to knit and convinced them that helping the war effort in this way was as manly as many other activities. Note how formally dressed they boys are--all of them wearing suits with shirts and ties, some of them single breasted and others double breasted. They seem to be wearing above-the-knee knicker suits with black long stockings. Notice the neatly combed and parted hair. These boys seem to come from prosperous families since they are so well dressed. The photo is undated but it was clearly taken at some point during the war, presumably after America entrered the War (April 1917).

The home fronts proved crucial in World War I. British Foreign Secretarry Sir Edward Grey (1862-1933) who worked tirelessly to preserve the peace when it became clear that Europe was spiraling toward war remarked, "The lights are going out all over Europe and they will not be lit again in our generation." He was essentially correct, but this was not how most saw it. Military commanders thought it would be a short swift conlict of rapid movement. It almost was, but when the French stopped the Germans on the Marne (September 1914), the war bogged down into a long grueling war of attrition. The well-prepared Germans with the strongest army in Europe head the advantage in a short war. The Allies with greater resources and the Royal Navy capable of blockading German held the advantage in a war attrition. This long drawn out war also made the home front critical. It would be the countries with the greatest resources and the which used those resources most efficiently that would prevail. While the Allies had the greater resources and with the Royal Navy the ability to import what they lacked. Even so the two-sides were relatively evenly matched. Rational calculations dictated that Germany do every thing possible to keep America out of the War. German policy, however, persued policies that eventually brought America and its huge resources into the War. Countries varied as to how efficently countries used their resources. Russia was the most defficent country in utilizing its resources which led to the Russian Revolution (October 1917) and Russia's withdrawl from the War. Surprisingly the Germans while mobilizing its industrial strength efficently, failed to do the same with its agriculture. Partly as a result, it was the German home front which eventually cracked.

Importance

The home fronts proved crucial in World War I. British Foreign Secretarry Sir Edward Grey (1862-1933) who worked tirelessly to preserve the peace when it became clear that Europe was spiraling toward war remarked, "The lights are going out all over Europe and they will not be lit again in our generation." He was essentially correct, but this was not how most saw it. Military commanders thought it would be a short swift conlict of rapid movement. It almost was, but when the French stopped the Germans on the Marne (September 1914), the war bogged down into a long grueling war of attrition.

Relative Advantage

The well-prepared Germans with the strongest army in Europe head the advantage in a short war. The advantage shifted to the Allies which had greater resources and the Royal Navy capable of blockading German held the advantage in a war attrition. This long drawn out war also made the home front critical. It would be the countries with the greatest resources and the which used those resources most efficiently that would prevail. While the Allies had the greater resources and with the Royal Navy the ability to import what they lacked.

Naval War

World War I was primarily a ground war. The naval war was, however, critical to the outcome. As a British naval commander corrected accessed, it was at sea that the Allies could lose the War in a single day. It was the Royal Navy blockade of Germant that proved critical in the War. Not only did it cause great provations in Germany, but it induced the German to launch unconditional submarine warfare (1917) bringing America into the War.

American Neutrality

Even so the two-sides were relatively evenly matched. Rational calculations dictated that Germany do every thing possible to keep America out of the War. German policy, however, persued policies that eventually brought America and its huge resources into the War.

Individual Country Home Fronts

Countries varied as to the resources available and how efficently countries used their resources. Britain was a major uindustrial power. Unlike the other major combatants, Britain did not have a large standing army or a military draft. Thus it would be some time before its weight could be felt on the battlefield in a major way. Britain had a major weakness in that it was dependant on international trade. This was true both for foodstuffs, but raw material for industry as well. Britain;s critical sea lanes would be attacked by the Germans, especially by the U-boats. France for much of the War provided the bulk of the force blocking the Germans in the West. For France there was less difference between the front lines and the home front. France had the agricultural sector needed to feed the country. The home front remained solid during the War, but the huge casualties almost cracked the French Army. Russia was the most defficent country in utilizing its resources which led to the Russian Revolution (October 1917) and Russia's withdrawl from the War. Surprisingly Germany while mobilizing its industrial strength efficently, failed to do the same with its agriculture. Partly as a result, it was the German home front which eventually cracked. America was the world's most important industrial and agricultural nation. Wjle America was at first neutral, the home front played a critical role in he War. American public opinion was strongly for staying out of the War. German policies from the beginning, especially the invasion of neutral Belgium, turned American public opinion against Germany. Other German war policies, especially unrestricted submarine warfare, meant that went President Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war. Pacifistic opinion rapidly gave way to a patriotic euforia and enthusiastic public support for the war effort. In all the blgernt countrues, the war brought about swweping social change.

Children's Play

Children's play was affected by the war. War games or variants like 'cops and robbers' or 'cowboys and Indians' are perenial favorites for boys. With the out break of the war, war games became an obsession for many boys. This was fueled with the acquisition of uniforms and war memorbilia from fathers and brothers at the front. Mothers must have had mixed feelings seeing their boys playing war, especially as so many had lost husbands and sons or other rekatives in the fighting. Here we have few actual accountds, but have noted some interesting images.

Youth Groups

The overiding event during the 1910s was World War I (1914-18). It was the greatest war in histotry and dominted the decade. With the surge of patriotism surrounding the War effort, support and membership in the Scouts grew in most countries. World War I was the first major war since the founding of youth groups and the first opportunity for these groups to organize young people on the home front to support the war effort. World war I was totl waras never before expereienced In Europe. And the Hme Front became an important part of the War. The Boy Scouts and other youth groups in combatent countries were mobilized during World War I to suport the war effort. This varied from country to country. The British Scout and Guide movement was esoeciallyactive. The couts were less important in Germany. France had a very ctive Scouting movement. We do not yet extensive information on the effort in individual countries. The United States finally entered the War (April 1917). The Boy Scouts of America after the entry of America in World War I, began home-front service in 1917 with the "Help win the war". The Scout motto, "Be prepared" was put into action. The Scouts persued many home-front activities. Scouts planted "war gardens" with the slogan, "Every Scout to feed a soldier". They sold over 2 million war bonds. Another project was to collect peach pits which were used to make charcoal for gas masks. These patriotic prjects helped to make the Boy Scouts enormously popular.

Rationing

The extent and duration of World War forced combatent nations to divert an increasing part of the economy to the war effort. At the same time raw material and manpower shortages affected production. This was especially the case of the Central Powers because of the Allied naval blockade. We believe that all the major combatents introduced rationing system, however, we have few details at this time.

Displaced Children

World War I caused mass slaughter on a basis never before exoerienced in Europe. The number of father killed in every country is difficult to fathom. The loss of life in all the major combatent countries was astromical, although smaller in America which entered the War in 1917 and did not commit troops in large numbers until 1918. The number of orphans was extremely high in Belgium and other areas where fighging took palace. ted. A friend tells me that early Life Magazine articles had some images of European children showing period clothes. I think in 1917-18 they ran a series of articles on French children who had lost their fathers in the War. The magazine I think was asking for donations to help these families. The series contained lots of pictures of these, sadly mostly young, fatherless children. If anyone has access to a good University library, these Life Magazine images should be available. There apparently was a variety of boys clothes pictured. Another problem was that while many children were not orphaned, rhere were millions without fathers. As the father in the 1910s was the principal, if not thde only, income eraner, this maent that millions of children were reduced to poverty or very close to it.







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Created: 7:36 PM 3/25/2005
Last updated: 11:54 PM 4/11/2017