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The messy aftermath of World War One


The First World War came to an end 100 years ago this month. Or did it? The reality was the Armistice was only the beginning of the end of the war, according to Professor Maggie Andrews.

“It was a much messier, longer end to the war than people might imagine,” says Professor Andrews, University of Worcester. “And the way it happened is more complicated than you might think.

“People tend to assume the war ended overnight and this brought great change with it. But it wasn't like that at all.”

Although 11 November 1918 is seen as marking the end of hostilities on the Western Front, the war didn't technically in end until June 1919 and the treaty of Versaille.

“And it really takes the best part of a year for things to settle down,” says Professor Andrews. “1919 is not a normal year in many ways.”

For a start a lot of soldiers don't come back until well into 1919, and the blockade of Germany also continued.

But it was not only what didn't change that muddled the end of the war – but what did.

For example, with the end of active conflict certain industries come to an abrupt end, such as munitions, which had employed upward of 1 million people.

In the messy aftermath of a terrible conflict all this came together to create a sense that the world might be different now; some longed for this and others deeply feared it. But in the end both groups had it wrong."

Professor Andrews says

“For some people the immediate effect of the war ending was absolutely awful,” says Professor Andrews. “While some might be celebrating on the day itself, the reality the day after was unemployment.

“Plus, in some areas they were too tired or too ill to cope, because the end of the war came in the middle of the Spanish Flu epidemic.”

Predictably there was a rush to marriage in 1919, as soldiers returned to their sweethearts cradling dreams of a happy home.

But many of these weddings were built on rocky foundations; people had changed over the course of the war and many men were badly injured, physically and mentally. “Everyone had been through a lot,” says Professor Andrews.

There was also a real panic about violence as thousands of battle-hardened soldiers returned to British streets to widespread unemployment and an insecure future.

“Many people were worried about how all these men would re integrate into society,” says Professor Andrews. “These men who had seen, and been part of, all this fighting and killing. How would they behave?”

There certainly were a lot of violent incidents in 1918 and 1919; there was a rise in the number of strikes and there were race riots on the docks sparked by unemployment and the fear of unemployment. In Luton and Wolverhampton even the peace celebrations turned into riots.

Ananya Jahanara Kabir
London after WW1. Credit: PelleThePoet on Flickr by CC2.0

“Partly this was to do with heavy-handed policing,” says Professor Andrews. “This was only two years after the Russian revolution and the elite were very jumpy. They even brought in the tanks on occasion.”

Britain was also a very different democracy now. In 1918 some women could now vote, if they were over 30 and met certain property qualifications. But, more numerically significant, a huge number of working class men were now able to vote for the first time.

“There is a sense that things could be different, and among the elite, a sense that they have to take these new voters seriously,” says Professor Andrews.

“In many ways this was a continuation of trends that had emerged in the Edwardian period but that had been effectively 'paused' during the war; there was no problem with unemployment during the war, for example, and there were far less young men around in Britain to riot or get drunk.”

In response to the new post-war world the government did attempt to put forward policies that would address what people wanted and ease tensions, such as paying pensions and re training those that had come back from the war injured.

“There was also an effort to memorialise in stone the sacrifices of the war – through monuments, reading rooms, and the odd alms house,” says Professor Andrews. “This was what the elite felt that they should do.

“But in all the most significant ways the old order was maintained.”

At its heart, postwar Great Britain was still a seriously unequal society that was struggling to work out how to resolve this, and the degree to which the underprivileged should be looked after.

Who should be 'encouraged' into work? And who really needs looking after? Who has 'rights' and what should those 'rights' be?

“Wartime often brings these kind of debates onto the light – in a conflict there is always in the background the question of 'what are we fighting for?'” says Professor Andrews. “Plus, in wartime we often rely of the rhetoric of togetherness, which can also have the byproduct of emphasising and drawing attention to inequality.”

In the messy aftermath of a terrible conflict all this came together to create a sense that the world might be different now; some longed for this and others deeply feared it. But in the end both groups had it wrong.

“There is often the notion now that the war brought about massive social change and that the armistice brought with it both an end to war and social change, when in fact both of these things happened much more gradually,” says Professor Andrews. “While there is a lot of twitching and moving - and talking - in the first year after the war, very little actually changed in any meaningful way.”

The inequality at the heart of British society - inequality of race, class and gender - would in the end remain for future generations to inherit.

Visit our WW1 Centenary news and events page for more about this momentous step-change in Great Britain's society at: ahrc.ukri.org/WW1.