Voices of the First World War: A Total War

The First World War was a new kind of war. It was fought on a massive scale, and involved millions of people. Entire populations became engaged in a fight for survival. As well as men in the armed forces, civilian populations soon found themselves directly affected by the conflict. This new – total – war was made possible by a number of factors. In Britain, the Defence of the Realm Act was immediately introduced in 1914, to give the government more control over people’s lives. Conscientious objector Eric Dott explained his reaction to its restrictions.

Total War

Well it was a very strict enactment during the war, the Defence of the Realm Act, which put a very strict limit on what you could say; or do; or write that might be interpreted as against the interests of the country in wartime. They were repressing anti-war feeling, repressing it very severely and strongly. And if you were known to have spoken; or said; or written anything that might be critical of the war effort, or discouraging for another man to take up the war effort, you would be arrested as treason, they would call that treason. And you would be put in prison for it.

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One of the many new controls imposed by the Defence of the Realm Act – or DORA – was a ban on buying rounds of drinks. William Benham explained this.

And another thing of course they had in the pubs which was the “No Treating Order”, you know. You weren’t allowed… I couldn’t take you into the pub and buy you a drink, if I’d wanted to. You’d have to pay for your own, and I’d have to pay for mine. And the only way I could give you a drink would be to slide the money to you, so that you paid for yours and I paid for mine! This was the “No Treating Order”, so that they tried to stop what we call the social life of a pub, they tried to stop it as much as possible. Because of the possibility of people saying unguarded things, getting a bit… having a drink or two over the odds and saying unguarded things. But there was a lot of security about like that. And there was a lot of funny little orders like that thing about the no treating, and those sort of things.

Horses were requisitioned by the British government early in the war, for use at the front. Thomas Hooker, who later served with the Machine Gun Corps, recalled the effects of this.

And soon after this news of the war, we were told – and we saw – that horses were being commandeered on the street. Leaving the baker or the milkman to pull his own cart home: there were very few motor-cars about. And we heard that these were required for the army transport.

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DORA strictly controlled the information that appeared in the media about the progress of the war. Beryl Hutchinson, who was an ambulance driver in Belgium and France, described how she got her war news.

If you got a nice supply of good newspapers, you kept it under the seat of the vehicle that you were driving. But it wasn’t all that current English, sometimes they were French. Just anything that you could get hold of. They told you about things that weren’t in your area and they told you about things at sea, some long time after it had happened, and that sort of thing. And I think you heard of main events and elections and that sort of thing. You didn’t hear about air raids until quite a long time afterwards and then very often sideways. And you had to put your own interpretation on it.

Charles Quinnell, of the Royal Fusiliers, was frustrated by one reporter’s accounts of the Battle of the Somme that appeared in the British press.

One of the standing jokes was the principal reporter he made – I’ll give you an example – he made the Battle of the Somme look like a Sunday school treat. He reported it that the troops went over kicking a football. Well now I believe one battalion or perhaps one platoon found a football and for a joke kicked it up in the air. But he made a big feature of that and people reading the account of the first reports of the Battle of the Somme got absolutely the wrong impression.

Wartime governments also sought to control how people thought, through the use of propaganda. Millions of posters were printed in Britain during the war, delivering a range of messages and slogans. Marjorie Cook, who lived in Buckinghamshire, remembered the intensely anti-German material she saw.

Well I can remember that they just told horror stories. But even children told them among themselves, I mean, about the Germans killing babies and all this kind of thing. But we’ve got a collection of books that makes that abundantly clear; books about 1915. And it’s totally childish and ridiculous the propaganda in these books! All was the wicked Hun – you’d never think that any German soldier was the same as our lads, exactly the same as ours – they were all wicked Huns and all that kind of thing.