The Home Front

Workers leaving one of the river Clyde shipbuilding yards at dinner time, Glasgow. © IWM (Q 20000)

The impacts of the Great War on people at home were vast and extensive, touching many aspects of life. Its reach grew as the conflict progressed into ‘total war’ and involved all sectors of society across Britain.

Scots enlisted in their hundreds of thousands and Pals’ Battalions formed in the neighbourhoods of Glasgow, Edinburgh and other cities across Britain. By the end of the war, over half a million Scots – half the male population aged 18-45 – had served in the Army and at least 100,000 died; Glasgow alone lost 18,000. The loss of so many men, especially in rural areas and city neighbourhoods (especially Pals’ Battalions), ripped holes in families and communities across the country. Many returned with injuries and war neurosis; they and their families experienced another kind of grievous loss – of life as they had known it – but one not widely recognised or supported at the time.

Across Britain, an enormous array of industrial activity provided building materials to the western Front and armed, clothed and fed the troops. It’s been estimated that, for every soldier serving on the front, 20 people were working to produce his kit, rations, ammunitions and weapons and the timber, sandbags, wire and other materials used to build and maintain trenches.

Scotland’s heavy industries – shipbuilding, heavy engineering, steel production, coal-mining and chemicals – cranked up several gears to meet demand. During the conflict 481 warships were built on Clydeside, along with armour-plated steel, tanks, submarines, artillery, aircraft and airships at Parkhead Forge and the shipyards of Fairfield, Beardmore and John Brown. The jute industries of Dundee and Perthshire boomed too, producing sandbags, sackcloth and webbing. The North British Rubber Company in Edinburgh made millions of rubber boots to protect soldiers from trench foot.

Skilled workers were forbidden to enlist and protected from conscription when it was introduced in 1916. Even so, the sudden exodus of so many men from the workforce meant women were increasingly needed to take on their jobs – from driving trams to shovelling coal to working in factories. Most of the 20,000 workers at the vast munitions factory at Gretna were women.

The Government extended its control over key industries and many aspects of social and economic life through the Defense of the Realm Act 1914 and other laws. It introduced British Summer Time to lengthen the working day, especially in agriculture; censored the press and private correspondence; restricted pub opening times and the strength of alcohol, and banned whistling for London taxis and the lighting of bonfires.