War history: Life on the home front in Suffolk during the First World War
- Credit: Archant
Mike Peters, Galloway’s resident military historian, looks at the effect of the Great War on people at home.
Many of the changes in the law of the land made during the Great War had far-reaching effects, transforming life for everybody in British society. Remarkably, some of those laws and emergency measures remain in place today and yet the majority of people affected by them have no idea where they originated or why we have them.
The declaration of war triggered almost instant change in the daily lives of the British public. Even before war was declared on August 4 the Royal Navy had been mobilised and the army was ready to do the same. A war in Europe had been anticipated and governments on both sides realised a clash between the major powers would bring war of unprecedented proportions. This focused minds on the mobilisation of entire populations to fight on a new, unparalleled and industrial scale.
The outbreak of war brought many new rules and regulations to Britain, the most important the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), passed on August 8, 1914, “for securing public safety”.
This new all-encompassing act gave the Government sweeping powers to prosecute anybody whose actions were deemed to “jeopardise the success of the operations of His Majesty’s forces or to assist the enemy”. This gave the Act a very wide interpretation. It regulated virtually every aspect of life on the British home front and its bounds expanded exponentially as war progressed.
In hindsight, some of the new rules and laws may seem very quirky or amusing. Others seem to make absolute common sense and we wonder why they weren’t already in place; but we should always remember we are looking back over 100 years through a telescope rated with 20 x 20 hindsight.
DORA allowed the Government to restrict the movement of foreign nationals, and to censor the press and individual mail. Measures that in the 21st Century seem draconian were quickly accepted as a necessity of war.
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Amongst the first batch of new laws is one that can definitely be filed under Q for quirky or quaint.
With the threat of air raids came a swathe of new regulations designed to protect the civilian population from marauding German Zeppelins and Gotha bombers. One of the most unusual was a ban on the common practice of whistling-down passing taxicabs. It was thought the whistles might be confused with the sound of the newly-introduced air raid alarms. Concern over the potential disruption that might be caused by false alarms led to the introduction of the no-whistling rule.
In an attempt to prevent spies or saboteurs attacking key points, the Government passed a law prohibiting loitering near tunnels and bridges. The threat of saboteurs signalling to ships or aircraft brought about a ban on the lighting of bonfires.
In some industrial and military towns the air threat brought new regulations imposing a black-out system at night. This had the unintended consequence of increasing the crime rate and the levels of prostitution. Both had secondary consequences, affecting war production and the number of soldiers deemed medically unfit to fight due to sexually-transmitted illnesses.
One of the most radical new measures even changed the way we tell the time.
In May, 1916, in an attempt to maximise daylight hours for farm workers and factories, British Summertime was introduced. The clocks went forward an hour for the very first time that summer, a temporary wartime measure we still live with and debate today.
One of the other laws affecting public life was triggered by concerns over lost production in the ever-expanding armaments industry. In reaction to reports of excessive drinking by workers and disruption to industrial output, the decision was taken to regulate licensing laws for the pubs the armaments workers graced with their newfound wealth.
As well as regulating opening hours the Government also ordered the strength of alcohol to be reduced. If these new measures weren’t radical enough, a new “no treating” law was introduced – essentially a ban on buying drinks for other people. Concern over the control of drugs also triggered legislation tightly controlling the production and sale of powerful drugs.
As you can see, the First World War had a dramatic effect on every aspect of life in Britain and many of the changes made still resonate today.
Would you like to visit the Western Front? Why not join a five-day tour on August 17 and discover the battlefields of the First World War? Visit the Galloway website or a Galloway Travel Centre for information.