The war at home

The experiences of men who fought during the First World War are well documented. Many kept diaries, wrote poems or letters home to loved ones and some went on to write autobiographies about life in the trenches when the war ended.

But what about the men who lived during the Great War, but didn’t step foot onto the battlefield?

Up until now, little has been written about civilian men on the home front, particularly middle class men.

The men themselves may have considered their experiences as being less important or interesting as those fighting for their country so did not record the ins and outs of daily life. But a University of Wolverhampton researcher is investigating the experiences of such individuals for a new book.

Dr Laura Ugolini, Reader in History, has received a research grant from the British Academy to look at what happened to men who didn’t join up because they were too old, unfit or were in reserved occupations.

A little-known majority

It is difficult to assess the numbers, but estimates suggest that one in three men joined the armed forces. This means that two thirds did not – but so little is known about them.

“Looking at case studies of individuals, there was a huge difference in their attitudes to the war and clearly it was a problem for many of them, even those that were too old to fight,” Laura, from the School of Law, Social Sciences and Communications, says.

“They felt they had to justify why they had not enlisted and that they had to present themselves as making a contribution to organisations supporting the war effort and charitable activities.

“But there was a feeling that whatever they did was never going to be good enough – the sacrifice was not sufficient as they were not on the battle front.”

This seems to have been more of an issue during the First World War than the Second, as bombing of civilians on the home front was more intense in the 1940s.

Laura explains: “There were Zeppelin raids and the fear of a German invasion during WW1, but during war time we create an image of heroic soldiers and brave war personnel so it is always difficult for those men who are not actively fighting to justify their role in society.”

Dr Ugolini cites an example of a male civil servant who was asked almost every day why he was not in uniform, and even received white feathers to symbolise cowardice. The writings that are available suggest that some men paid no attention to this, while others were traumatised by it.

For example, at the outbreak of war, Walter Glenn Ostler was a railway booking clerk at Crouch Hill, North London. During an interview for an oral history project in 1973, he said that he was ‘6 ft 1 ½ tall and very soon patriotism built up very intense around London and alternate weeks I used to meet my fiancé at Finsbury Park’.

He added that getting on the tram and ‘being so tall and fairly conspicuous … I was soon made to feel that my place would be in the forces; in fact on one or two occasions I was given white feathers’.

Laura adds: “Some men spent the whole war being harassed about why they were not in uniform as the assumption was that they did not want to do their duty, and had somehow managed to get work in a reserved occupation or used their contacts.”

Looking closer

Dr Ugolini’s research looks at a number of aspects of life for men on the home front, including the impact of the Zeppelin attacks and the extent to which people had information about what was happening on the battle front.

She is also studying their experiences of work and how they continued their occupations.

Family life is placed under the spotlight to consider the disruption and break down of the normal order, and asks whether men felt they had lost their authority as women got involved in the war effort and sons went off to fight in the trenches.

The book will look at the men who volunteered on the home front by becoming Special Constables or joining paramilitary organisations in case there was an enemy invasion. This was one way of proving their patriotism. They also had to change their leisure and consumption habits because of the restrictions of the war.

To carry out the research, Dr Ugolini is looking at any material that is available, such as diaries of men on the home front.

One diary she has uncovered is thousands of pages long as the author felt it was his war duty to write the diary.

At the end of the war, Frederick Robinson wrote: ‘It is an intense relief to feel that this daily self-imposed task, I might almost say, this daily penance, is finished. I feel like the man must have felt who took off the hair shirt he wore for his soul’s sake’.

His own family questioned why he was doing it, and it became a self-imposed duty for him. He stopped writing on November 11, 1918.

Distant from the events of war

Another diary was written by Andrew Clark a vicar of a small parish in Essex, as he had been disappointed that he had not kept a diary of village life and opinions during the Boer War.

Laura describes this diary as “fascinating” as he kept press cuttings and adverts to create a history of the war.

“He is distant from the events of the war, but you get hints within the diary of combatants that didn’t come back. One family in his parish lost five sons during the war, and this is explained as the vicar had to sign to receive the effects. On Wednesday 14 October 1914 Clark wrote: Mrs Sophia Fitch, wife of Walter Fitch, an agricultural labourer, had come ‘to have their application signed for the effects of their son Dick … of the 2nd Essex Regiment, killed in action … a lad of just 19, and enlisted so recently as a year ago last June’.

“He also posted the names of those that were serving on the door of the church but stopped this practice as it was too painful to remove the names of those that had died. He tries to be impersonal but this gives an insight into how he felt about the losses. The death of his own wife due to illness does not get mentioned in the diary as it was not part of the war – perhaps because it was considered personal.”

Dr Ugolini’s study looks at one of the most widely researched periods of our country’s history, but an aspect that has received little attention. But as she says, it is another part of the jigsaw in our understanding of this pivotal era of modern times.

“After World War One, there was a trend towards publishing the autobiographies of soldiers, but very few, if any, of civilians. They may not have been considered as important or interesting as the experiences of combatants but it creates a huge gap in our war knowledge as you imagine the home front to be completely empty of men, when clearly, it was not."