The British, it is often said, went to war with Rupert Brooke and came home with Siegfried Sassoon. While the aphorism seems to encapsulate the evolution of national consciousness from the naïve patriotism of 1914 to the bitterness of 1918, it is too simplistic to explain the change that came over Britain as a result of the First World War. That change manifested itself most profoundly in 1916 – a pivotal year that neatly divides old Britain from the modern nation of today.


Poets are seldom accurate barometers of national temper. The average British soldier did not romanticise, like Brooke, the idea of dying in some foreign field that would be forever England. The millions who volunteered in the first two years of the war did so for various reasons, many of them more mundane then we might think. Patriotism was undoubtedly a big factor, with most displaying a dispassionate willingness to serve their country in its hour of need. Others volunteered for less sublime reasons like pressure from employers or girlfriends, the lure of masculine adventure or simply the need for a job.

Most soldiers did not mirror Brooke’s romanticism, so they didn’t suffer Sassoon’s bitterness. That feeling arose because of the deep chasm between expectation and experience – what Sassoon’s friend Wilfred Owen called “the old lie”. The war poets discovered that it was not “sweet” to die for one’s country and their poems reflect the sense of betrayal that came with that discovery. The common soldier, in contrast, discovered something different, namely that service implied citizenship. War experience was for them an entry in the balance sheet of life, to be compensated by peacetime recognition.

The millions who volunteered in the first year of the war were ready for battle in 1916. They were the soldiers of the Somme who walked into German machine gun fire on 1 July. On that day, the British Army experienced the worst losses in its history – 57,000 casualties, of whom 19,000 were dead. The scale of death inspired a long, bitter post-mortem.

For the past 90 years, the British have argued over alternatives and desperately sought scapegoats. In truth, however, long casualty lists were the inevitable result of the conjunction of industrialised war with democratised service. By 1916, Europe had millions willing to fight and the industrial capacity to kill them. War became a machine of death for which human beings were the fuel.

1916 in context

Going from world banker to borrower, Britain was on its knees after the wars and in need of extensive reform to help its people

The half-century from 1900 to 1949 brought the First and Second World Wars and the Depression. Those three calamities left Britain devastated. In 1900, she was a great power, in control of a massive empire and the largest navy in the world. By 1949, she was a second rate power, helpless to stop the inevitable tide of decolonisation. Once the world’s banker, she had become a major borrower, dependent upon foreign loans to keep the economy afloat.

These great developments are undoubtedly important to an understanding of Britain during the period, but perhaps not as important as the motor car, the washing machine, the vacuum cleaner and the cinema. Real life is shaped by trivialities. Great events fill newspapers and history books precisely because they are extraordinary and, as such, a far cry from the mundane lives most people lead. The rituals of everyday life hold society together and provide stability in a threatening world. Despite the wars, depression and political upheaval of the period between 1900–49, most British people got on with life and even prospered.

Much can be learned from studying changes in the British diet. During the First World War, the bread ration was limited to seven pounds per man per week. Bread, eaten with a bit of dripping, was the staple food for the working class. Meat was a rare treat, and vegetables even rarer. Oranges were given at Christmas precisely because they were so rare. No wonder that only 34 per cent of the British male population was technically fit for frontline service in 1914.

War, ironically, was good for the health of the British population. The shock of the Boer War, when Britain struggled to gather together an army healthy enough to fight, inspired the Liberal welfare reforms of 1908–14. Similar concern was shown after the First World War, though the scale of reform was limited by financial crisis. The Second World War inspired the creation of the welfare state, with its aim of care from cradle to grave.

At the same time that health improved, so too did quality of life. The washing machine and the vacuum cleaner relieved some of the drudgery of housework, while improving hygiene in the home. By 1939, there were more than one million cars on the road. That, combined with improvements in rail services, made travel around the country much more common. So, too, did the increased provision of paid holidays. Meanwhile, cinemas and dance halls provided escapist excitement for those otherwise trapped in monotony. In the interwar period, one-third of the British population went to the cinema at least once a week.

By 1949, it was difficult to define what was “great” about Britain. A half-century of war and depression rendered her weak and destitute. The average citizen, however, was better educated, healthier, and lived an altogether richer life mid-century than his or her ancestors in 1900. The decline of a nation did not, in other words, mean the decline of a people.

Britain’s women go to work

The scale of death forced Britain to become a nation at war. The millions who took up arms had left factories, fields, docks and offices. Their place was taken by the old, the young, the infirm and, notably, by women. Much has been made of the influx of women in the workplace, and the emancipation that supposedly led from it. In truth, however, the idea of women working was nothing new, though never before had British women performed work so important. Its importance lies not so much in the effect it had upon the women themselves, but rather in the implications it had for the nation as a whole. In ways seldom recognised, Britain was rescued by her women.

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More Munitions
c1916: A British recruitment poster urging women to work in the munitions factories as part of Britain's homefront during World War I. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

By 1916, it was clear that victory would be achieved not on the battlefield but in the factories and farms. Success would go to the nation best able to mobilise its population for the single purpose of sustaining the war effort. The army congregated in France and Belgium was Britain’s largest city, bar London. Like any city, it needed food, clothing, transport, a legal system, medical and pastoral care. Unlike any other city, it consumed a prodigious supply of munitions and produced nothing except death. All of its needs had to be provided by those back at home, from a workforce diminishing in numbers and skill.

Mobilisation demanded organisation and a heretofore unthinkable degree of government intervention. Britain began the war under the misguided assumption that it would be short and profitable, and that those at home would not feel its pain. Indeed, the phrase “home front” was seldom used before 1914. It was invented to describe a peculiar implication of industrialised war which became blindingly evident in 1916. “Business as usual” gave way to a comprehensive system of government control. Regulations affected nearly every aspect of life, including where a person lived and worked, what he or she earned and bought, the food they ate and the beer they drank.

These controls spelled the death of liberalism. That philosophy was based on the sanctity of individual freedom, yet it was clear that the rights of the individual could not withstand the demands of war. The most important symbol of sacrifice came in January 1916 with the passage of the Military Service Act, which imposed conscription on all men aged between 18 and 41. The right to choose whether to fight for one’s country, arguably the most sacred individual freedom, was cast aside with surprisingly little dissent. Conscription, it should be noted, was not just a way to supply soldiers for the Army, but it was also a way to control the workforce at home.

The demise of liberalism

The assault upon liberalism had dire consequences for the Liberal Party. The party’s demise was apparent virtually from the start of the war, but was dramatically confirmed by the formation, on 6 December 1916, of a new coalition led by David Lloyd George. The previous coalition, formed by Herbert Asquith in 1915, had brought the Tories and (significantly) Labour into the government, but was essentially a desperate attempt to preserve liberalism by other means.

Married Conscripts
A group of married men on their conscription into the British Army, June 1916. One man is accompanied by his wife and child. Conscription in Britain was extended to married men in May 1916. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Asquith had sought to improvise his way to victory, intervening in the economy only when disaster threatened. The futility of that was revealed by the Somme offensive, which lasted for three months and resulted in 400,000 British casualties, in the process putting huge pressure on the British economy. Lloyd George used the issue of war management to shove Asquith aside. The party was cleaved by the coup, the purists following Asquith, the realists Lloyd George.

A new prime minister meant a new, more presidential, style. Asquith had desperately tried to preserve the ideal of cabinet government, even though it was ill-suited to wartime centralisation. Lloyd George, despite his liberal sympathies, was authoritarian – the type of leader perfectly suited to the conduct of war. He brought to Downing Street the same dynamism, creativity and determination that he had earlier exhibited at the Ministry of Munitions and the War Office. This implied a willingness to slaughter sacred cows – nothing was allowed to stand in the way of victory.

Centralisation brought homogenisation. Britain became a single nation driven by single purpose. While much local pride was invested in, for instance, the Royal Welch Fusiliers and the Scots Guards, in truth regional differences were smothered by wartime unity and the democracy of death. War fostered a genuine sense of Britishness. The one notable exception was, of course, Ireland, where nationalists turned wartime calamity into opportunity. The Easter Rising of 1916 never had a hope of achieving its immediate aim of separation, but did change the face of Irish politics for ever.

The sacrifice of youth first manifested on the Somme in 1916 continues to haunt Britain. That loss has, over the years, obscured a death at least as profound, namely the demise of the liberal ethos. Liberalism would survive the war but would no longer be the guiding principle of government. Wartime intervention carried the undeniable accolade of success – mobilisation had won the war. In time, the lessons of war would be applied to the problems of peace, with the accompanying expectation that every calamity affecting society demanded governmental response. The welfare of the collective would be promoted at the cost of individual freedom.

Remember the trenches

One of the most striking lessons of 1916 was the ability of the nation to withstand massive loss. Ubiquitous death did not, as in Russia, inspire revolution, but rather brought out a stoical determination to persevere. The soldiers who survived wanted afterwards to join the system, not to destroy it. For them, wartime service came to imply the right to a political voice, increasingly expressed through the Labour Party. “Remember the Trenches” a Labour poster enjoined in 1923. In a similar but less pronounced way, the women who once filled shells in the munitions factories were not radicalised by their experience, but they did gain a sense of service which was a step on the road to full citizenship.

“I think of you the same and always shall,” wrote Marian Allen in homage to her lover who died in the First World War. That sentiment seems appropriate not just to her loss, but also to the entire generation that died in 1916. The soldiers in khaki are frozen in time, forever young, forever innocent. The Britain they once inhabited, however, travelled resolutely forward, on rails laid in 1916. The nation they had volunteered to protect was never restored. Today, the world of Asquith seems quaint, that of Lloyd George utterly familiar.

History facts: 1900–1949

Population of Great Britain: 1901, 41.5 million; 1951, 53.2 million

Death rate (England and Wales) per 1,000 population: 1901, 16.1; 1950, 11.8

Percentage of 15- to 18-year-olds in school: 1901, 0.3 per cent; 1951, 12.5 per cent

Life expectancy: 1901, 45 (males), 48.7 (females); 1949, 65.5 (males), 69.8 (females)

Key years: other events in the first half of the 20th century

1901 – The death of Queen Victoria. This provided a symbolic end to an era. Meanwhile, the continued difficulties the British Army was experiencing in taming Boer Forces in South Africa raised serious doubts about the defence of the British empire. After the war, Britain would forge alliances of a sort with France, Russia and Japan in order to protect her colonies in Asia and Africa. Meanwhile, the poor quality of army recruits focused attention on the need for social welfare reforms, or what became known as “national efficiency”.

1908 – Campbell-Bannerman’s resignation. The Liberal Prime Minister’s departure brought Herbert Asquith to Downing Street and David Lloyd George to the Exchequer. The change ushered in the phase of “New Liberalism” inspired by Lloyd George and Winston Churchill. The government embarked upon the most radical programme of reform since 1870, eventually introducing legislation covering employment, housing, pensions and health – all financed by a revolutionary “People’s Budget”.

1924 – The first Labour administration. After an election in December 1923 resulted in a hung parliament, the first ever Labour government took office in January, with Ramsay MacDonald as its leader. His government was too weak to achieve anything of substance, but did demonstrate, by its very existence, that Labour had supplanted the Liberals as the party of the left. A second election in October returned the Tories to power and further crippled the Liberal party.

1929 – World depression. A general election in May resulted in Labour winning the most seats, though not a clear majority. MacDonald returned to Downing Street. The new government’s plans for social reform were rendered moot by the Wall Street Crash in October, which ushered in worldwide economic depression. Unemployment steadily rose, reaching 2.5 million by the following year.

1931 – Formation of the national government. The worsening economic crisis and steadily rising unemployment figures placed enormous pressure upon the Labour government. With Britain on the verge of bankruptcy, the May Committee advised cuts in unemployment benefits. In August, the government broke up over the question of these cuts. A national government was formed which was essentially conservative, though MacDonald remained Prime Minister.

1940 – Chamberlain’s resignation. A succession of military defeats, combined with accumulated disillusionment over the failure of appeasement, resulted in the resignation of Neville Chamberlain. Winston Churchill formed a coalition government notable for Labour’s enthusiastic support. Labour was rewarded with a number of important domestic ministries, in particular the appointment of Ernest Bevin as minister of labour. British cities were bombarded by the Luftwaffe.

1942 – The Beveridge Report. The stunning defeat of the German Wehrmacht at El Alamein by British forces in November 1942 was followed by the publication of Social Insurance and Allied Services, commonly known as the Beveridge Report. It laid the foundation for the welfare state and was hugely popular among all classes in wartime Britain.

1945 – Labour landslide. The end of war in Europe was immediately followed by a general election which resulted in the shock defeat of Churchill’s Conservative Party. The landslide victory of the Labour Party further solidified support for the programme of reform that was recommended in the Beveridge Report. The election, which was surprising at the time, now seems the understandable expression of the collectivist sympathies encouraged during the war.

1946 – Creation of the National Health Service. At the peak of its popularity, the Labour government under Clement Attlee pushed through a series of social welfare reforms, including, most notably, the National Health Service Act. On another front, the government embarked upon a comprehensive programme of nationalisation of key industries, including steel and coal. To fund the reforms, the government imposed severe austerity measures.

More turning points in British history

Read next: 1956: The shock of Suez

Go back: 1851: The Crystal Palace

Gerard DeGroot is a professor of modern history at St Andrews University and the author of The Sixties Unplugged: A Kaleidoscopic History of a Disorderly Decade (Macmillan, 2008)

Further reading: The Road to 1945 by Paul Addison (Pimlico, 1994); Blighty: British Society in the Era of the Great War by Gerard DeGroot (Longman, 1996); Never Again by Peter Hennessy (Penguin, 2006); The Making of Modern British Politics 1867-1945 by Martin Pugh (Blackwell, 2002)


This article was first published in the October 2007 issue of BBC History Magazine