The Home Front: Britain 1914-1918 conference

McGarry, F. (Member of scientific committee)

Activity: Participating in or organising an event typesParticipation in conference


Hosted by Sir Hew Strachan, Professor of International Relations, the conference will take place at University of St Andrews, Scotland’s oldest university. It has the support of the Scottish Government and the Department of Culture Media and Sport, and will be incorporated by both in their sequence of commemorative events to mark the centenary of the First World War.
The First World War changed the ways in which men and women thought and spoke. One of its innovations was the ‘home front’, a phrase which has entered the English vocabulary precisely because the fighting of 1914-18 required the mobilisation, not just of the armed forces but of British society as a whole.
Industry was converted to war production, the state intervened in the management both of the economy and its workforce, and civilians – women as well as men – bent their efforts, voluntarily as well as compulsorily, to sustaining the war effort. This was not uncontroversial. Liberals bemoaned the challenge to the principles of free trade; Conservatives feared that the war would destroy the very community the nation was fighting to protect; and Labour had to compromise on the hard-won rights of workers and trades unions. Britain became the arsenal and financier not only of its own imperial effort, but also of its allies’. Some parts of the country, particularly the east coast and London, came under direct attack from sea and air, and the fear of a German invasion never totally dissipated. The victory of 1918 belonged to the nation as a whole, not just to its army and navy.
So far the national events chosen to mark the centenary have focused on the latter, the fighting forces, and have neglected the former. However, as the applications to the Heritage Lottery Fund and the projects supported by 14-18NOW have shown, the social impact of the war generates enormous public interest. Indeed the British appetite for the centenary commemorations effectively began here, at the local rather than at the national level. By 2014 groups of interested individuals wanted to know how the war had affected their communities – their towns, villages, schools, churches, workplaces, sports clubs, and more. Moreover, as the centenary nears its culmination, many of them have now provided answers to their questions.
Those responses are local, but they were part of wider effort, coordinated at national level, as the British Isles responded collectively to the greatest demands made of the state thus far in its history. In the 1920s the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace set out to create an Economic and Social History of the World War. The British series for this massive undertaking was master-minded by a board, which included John Maynard Keynes, and was chaired by Sir William Beveridge. Most of those who contributed volumes had been party to the policies of wartime and, for all their efforts to be objective, might struggle to be wholly so. In the 1960s, as departments of economic and social history flourished in British universities, much of the work of the Carnegie series was revisited by scholars who were able to bring fresh approaches to sources that were now being opened for the first time. Since then, however, the social history of the First World War has moved away from the efforts put into domestic production, from issues of economics and state control, to focus instead on a new agenda, culture, memory and gender. The British Home Front 1914-1918 is a timely return to topics which had permanent effects for British government, tax patterns, class structure and political economy. It is also a conference devoted to an achievement that had a more immediate effect: the mobilisation of the home front had a major role in winning the war.
Period20 Jun 201824 Jun 2018
Event typeConference
LocationSt Andrews, United Kingdom
Degree of RecognitionInternational