North East academics and authors discuss impact on British society of the Great War

The role of women, propaganda and the bombing of Britain all changed our society forever, say Sunderland University experts

PA/PA Wire British Artillerymen in action with a big gun during the opening of the Battle of the Somme on 01/01/1916
British Artillerymen in action with a big gun during the opening of the Battle of the Somme on 01/01/1916

In 1914, the enthusiasm to fight for Britain was like nothing that had been seen before - or since.

Huge numbers signed up, many thinking their duty would be over by Christmas that year.

But numbers that could never have been imagined died - and the lives of those that survived were changed forever.

The Great War, as it was known, still has an impact to this day.

Each November we have a minute’s silence to mark the day First World War hostilities ended, while memorials to the battles dominate towns and cities across the UK.

Educating our children about the effects of this War is still seen as a key part of the national curriculum, with thousands of North East pupils still visiting the battlefields, statues and graveyards on an annual basis.

The British Army took only volunteers in 1914. It is often believed propaganda played a key part in whipping up the enthusiasm for “the fight”.

The now infamous poster of Lord Kitchener with the “Join Your Country’s Army” message is often seen as a key moment in persuading many would-be soldiers to sign up.

However, war journalist and Wearsider Kate Adie believes this is often taken out of context.

Lecturer Dr Angela Smith and Oscar winning producer David Parfitt, from the University of Sunderland, discuss the impact on society of the First World War
Lecturer Dr Angela Smith and Oscar winning producer David Parfitt, from the University of Sunderland, discuss the impact on society of the First World War

She said: “People certainly did not join the Army purely based on propaganda.

“It is an absolute nonsense that is perceived these days without any understanding of the feelings of patriotism at the time, of the Empire and of national pride and duty.

“It is nonsense to think it was just propaganda. Propaganda was by no means fully fledged as a tool for war until around 1916 and came from America.

“That’s where the roots of propaganda and its use as a PR tool began.

“There is no doubt there was encouragement to join because it was an urgent war – but it’s not propaganda, it’s more a cheap 21st Century shot which a lot of people use and look at through the 1914 war.

“In 1914 vast numbers thought it was their duty to defend their country.”

When the War first began it was believed it would be short, finished by Christmas.

How wrong they were. 8.7 million people worldwide served and 956,703 members of the British Army alone died during the conflict.

The War became a game changer; the use of battleships, aeroplanes and weapons on this scale had never been seen before. It cannot even be remotely compared to the Boer War which had only taken place 12 years previously.

Dr Angela Smith, reader in Language and Culture, University of Sunderland said: “It was the first war of the mass industrialised era.”

Kate Adie added: “The First World War was something the world had never seen before.

“By 1918/19 there was very definitely a sense that this was something which the entire nation had been involved in and hundreds and thousands of lives were lost.

The most iconic of all wartime posters featuring Lord Kitchener
The most iconic of all wartime posters featuring Lord Kitchener

“Millions of lives were affected in a way that had not been in living memory before, and therefore it had to be marked in some way.”

Oscar winning producer David Parfitt, also an Honorary Doctorate of Arts at Sunderland University, produced The Wiper’s Times last year for the BBC.

The story tells of a group of soldiers who worked on a newspaper based in the trenches during the First World War.

He said: “The legacy of the First World War has to be about the development of modern warfare, the principles before the War dated back to Napoleonic times.”

Back home, things changed too. The North East coastline was one of many areas badly affected by enemy bombing campaigns. The region was attacked by planes dropping bombs on homes and areas along the coastline - another new element of this war.

Dr Smith explains: “The home front was a battleground.

“You had the bombardment of the east coast; Zeppelins flying over Sunderland, the bombardment of Hartlepool and Scarborough and airships flying over London.

“People weren’t used to flying aircrafts at all, never mind those that would drop bombs on them.

“It was a very different concept of war, people were killed in their own homes which was something had never occurred for more than 1,000 years in wars.”

And the Great War changed women’s role in British society forever. Women were making ammunition and being encouraged to do “their bit” to help the men on the frontline.

Kate Adie felt the subject has been largely ignored and last year brought a book out to highlight the effect women had on the War and how they had been used for jobs that would not have been imaginable previously.

She said: “Historians and military historians focus on the battles, the various manoeuvres and the outcome and nearly always decided by military action – victory or defeat.

Kate Adie
Kate Adie

“But there is no doubt about the position of the women in the First World War, even though plenty of academics recognised in 1917/18 that the contribution of women was more than ordinary – it had never happened before. It’s a phenomenal moment in recent social history.

“Prior to the First World War women were invisible to what we now call society. They were not fully civil citizens, they did not have the vote, no legal rights and played very little part in public life.

“They were immensely limited by convention and by law. In 1914 this changed, they began to come into public life and this had never been the case before.

“When you look back now you realise where the deep roots are of arguments in today’s society about equality and it’s a hugely important story.”

However, it was not all revolutionary for the women working in labs, mills, factories, and often very dangerous conditions.

Women were expected to care for the returning men. Often suffering shellshock and incapable of working, many were left in poverty.

Doctors in their thousands wrote letters to the state, highlighting the problem and demanding more money was made available to help.

When the War began there had been a heightened sense of national identity, but afterwards women were writing to the Government to complain they, and their men, had been abandoned.

Businesses also felt the effect of the fighting, jewellers and many others closed down because no one was buying their products. There was also a period of austerity, leading to significant unemployment.

Kate Adie added: “History is what makes us what we are today.

“To ignore it and to discuss it in a fairytale way, in a medieval peasant way, would be an absolute scandal.

“We ought to learn about history, to understand it and learn lessons from it.

“The First World War was such a major part of shaping the century that followed and its effects are still felt in many myriad ways. Children should learn from it.

“Across the world we see warfare still going on, people should see how dreadful it is and that it must be avoided at all costs.”


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer