Remembering the Home Front of the First World War

Originally posted on the Imperial and Global Forum – the blog of the Centre for Imperial and Global History at the History Department, University of Exeter.

Richard Batten

The commemoration of the Western Front should not wholly overshadow the wide-ranging activities of the men, women, and children of the British Home Front. Devon’s local tendency toward charity over service reflects the unusual autonomy of its citizens as they attempted to navigate the different challenges of the war.

The recent politicised controversies surrounding the centenary of the First World War reveal the strong emotions and the common misperceptions that the conflict continues to evoke. Presently, the deliberations about the commemoration of the Great War also remain primarily focused on how and why Britain went to war: who started what, the failings of military strategists, and the gruelling experience of British soldiers. This is reflected in the staggering amount of books about the Great War that have been published to coincide with and capitalise upon the conflict’s centenary. Yet Margaret Macmillan rightly points out that whilst the passions evoked in the debate on the First World War ‘may make for a good spectacle’, it does not do ‘what history should – and that is help us to understand the past in all its complexity’. Yet, amid these heated debates of how the First World War should be remembered in Britain, there has been little discussion and reflection of the complex wartime experiences of individuals that fell outside the requirements of military service: the women, children and men unable to serve in the military who instead participated in various forms of economic and social self-mobilisation.

According to John Horne, the mobilization of the European nations was essentially a ‘political and cultural process’.[1] These mobilization efforts to support the British war effort constituted a second front that supported the fighting front. This secondary British front became defined as the Home Front.[2] It seems that the word ‘Home Front’ first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1917. Yet, despite the evocation of home as an emotional counterbalance to the military front, Susan R. Grayzel indicates that in Britain and France, whilst the First World War had created the concept of ‘Home Front’, the conflict ‘never stabilized the boundaries separating war from home’.[3]

Self-Mobilization: Devon as Microhistory

Histories of the British Home Front during the Great War have typically concentrated on the analytical framework of the nation state.[4] However, Keith Grieves suggests that the wartime experiences of the British Home Front were not so ‘complete and universal that one monolithic historical narrative can serve the nuances of differences, which inhabited contemporary “lived” representations of the nation at war’.[5] He also proposes that the local histories of the Home Front comprise a ‘new’ cultural history of the Great War in that it is informed from below by giving a greater ‘emphasis on the effects of war on local communities in their distinctive settings’.[6] A reflection of the British Home Front on both a local level and a national level reinforces the fact that Britain in 1914 was no monolithic structure.[7] Thus, the contributions that civilians made to the war effort in fact varied greatly across the British Isles. For this, the county of Devon proves particularly illustrative.[8]

An examination of the South Western county of Devon, the third largest county in England, provides an important reflection of the strengths and limitations of different forms of self-mobilisation. Like elsewhere, the Army worked closely with local elites in order to garner recruits.[9] Despite this, recruitment efforts in Devon during 1914 and 1915 did not produce the success that the Army recruiters and the county’s elite had hoped that Devon would achieve.[10] Instead, they encountered hesitation and indifference from some Devonians towards their exhortations that the county’s men should volunteer. Frustrated with recruiting efforts at the South Devon resort of Dawlish in the autumn of 1914, Army recruiter Major-General Laye observed that Devonians were ‘too content away from the war in the sunshine’.[11] And in December 1914, the recorder of Tiverton, Sir Trehawke Kekewich, put forward the accusation that recruitment was not a priority in Devon and instead the county had its eyes on another prize: ‘In Devonshire they had not done their duty; they beat Somerset at games but Somerset was beating them in the “war game.”’.[12] He went on to reference a legend within the county folklore of Devon in order to reinforce through this comparison the lacklustre response of Devon’s men: ‘an old tradition that when England was in difficulty or danger old Drake was heard beating his drum. He never was beating it so furiously as now; one could imagine him on the Hoe, calling the young men to come’.[13]

Local logic supported Devonian hesitancy. The Reverend Dr. John T. Trelawny-Ross, a former vicar of Paignton, proposed that a large number of Devon’s men were reluctant to volunteer until they were compelled because they thought that ‘sooner or later they will have to go’.[14] In other words, although some enlisted, more than a few Devonians did not believe the war to be a life or death struggle for Britain or the Empire, fostering a general feeling of unreality amongst the county’s men about the war’s significance.[15]

Humanitarianism, not Opposition

However, the hesitant response from Devon should not be interpreted as symptoms of anti-war sentiment or lack of patriotism. Rather, it stemmed from the fact that Devonians often developed their own rationalisations for abstaining from the behaviours that Devon’s elite prescribed for them. This was evident in February 1915 when an Army representative urged the men of the West Devon village of Bridestowe to join the army. The answer that he received to his appeals was: ‘“We’ve got no time for that rummage”’.[16] This is also noted in the responses from farmers’ sons’ in North Devon with their declaration that they were ‘going to stay home and look after the grub and the money’.[17]

The evidence from the archives and newspapers of Devon, alongside an examination of the wartime experiences of Devon’s elite, indicate that the participation of Devon’s population in the measures introduced in the name of the war effort was not perceived to be a straightforward choice. Instead, for some Devonians it was to focus on local and individual priorities because the preservation of their livelihoods in wartime took precedence over appeals to consider some ill-defined national interest. Rather, the involvement of Devonians with the war effort was informed by what was considered to be an appropriate contribution and a practical way to engage with the war effort.

Bedford Circus for Sale of War Bonds (December 1917)
A model Tank was used in a procession through the streets of Exeter in December 1917 which became the centrepiece in a campaign to encourage Devonians to buy War Bonds. The title for the card on the tank reads: ‘The Bonds Bought Here Buy Bombs & Guns & Build More Tanks To Beat The Huns’.

This was evident in the practical way that Devonians engaged with the war effort through purchasing War Loans and War Bonds. By 1918, Devon, which possessed 31 War Savings Associations, was listed as one of the ten counties in England and Wales with the largest number of War Savings Associations.[18] Adrian Gregory acknowledges that whilst the number of local WSA’s is a crude measure to indicate their popularity, ‘it does give some idea of the depth of involvement of local communities’.[19]Furthermore, Mr Lloyd Parry, the Town Clerk of Exeter, revealed that in respect to the War Saving’s Movement the city of ‘Exeter can claim to be well in the forefront, as not long after the close of the war, it was found that local subscriptions to War Savings Certificates were in comparison with the population – 75 per cent more than the average of the whole country’.[20] This meant that charitable forms of participation with the war effort were more successful than the recruitment efforts in Devon.

The great popularity of charities and philanthropic activities in Devon related to the war effort reveals that voluntary aid found more resonance with the humanitarian sensibilities of the county’s population. This was evident with the Voluntary Aid Detachment in Devon which had grown in popularity since 1909 to the extent that Thekla Bowser suggests in terms of financial support that Devon was ‘one of the richest “veins” which existed in England before the war’.[21] This great financial success was also evident with the Devon branch of the British Red Cross when it had raised £6,300 15 s. 7 d. which exceeded ‘by over £900 the collection of any other County’.[22]In Lady Fortescue’s view, this was one of the ‘many proofs of Devon’s unbounded generosity’ during the First World War.[23]

These examples reaffirm the strength of the humanitarian nature of Devon’s patriotism and emphasize the accomplishments that Devon’s population had achieved in various philanthropic activities. Hence, whereas, throughout much of the British Home Front, local communities rallied around recruitment tables, many Devonians were instead more prepared to give to the war effort in the form of charitable efforts to claim their citizenship in the wartime community.[24] Their tendency toward charity over service reflects the unusual autonomy of Devon’s citizens as they attempted to navigate the different challenges of the war whilst they weighed-up the benefits and constraints of participating in different forms of mobilization against individual and local priorities.

Mayoress of Exeter Mothering (August 1915)
The Mayoress of Exeter, Mrs J. G. Owen, along with other prominent women of Exeter provided refreshments for the Army troops travelling between Exeter and Plymouth throughout the war.

The mobilization of Devon’s women into charitable efforts was significant because their engagement with charitable efforts provided a distinct ‘recognition of citizenship emerging from their patriotism’.[25] This was evident with the activity of knitting when during the first weeks of the war the women of Devon had made and donated to Lady Fortescue 5,000 pairs of socks and 1,500 body belts.[26] However, according to Lord Fortescue, despite the fact that the majority of the socks were badly made they were used to ‘put over the breech action of the rifles as [a] mud guard’.[27]

Children also became active participants in the ‘war effort, not only through education and the singing of patriotic songs in assembly but by the variety of relief efforts’.[28] For instance, the boys of the Holy Trinity School in Barnstaple in September 1914 collected ‘blackberries to make jam to send to the “Jam Committee” of their local Distress Fund’.[29] This was also true of girls who were encouraged to fulfil their wartime obligations through knitting. The children of Hunshaw Church of England National School in Barnstaple sent a parcel containing ‘“sixteen pairs of socks, five long mufflers and eight pairs of mittens together with cigarettes to the value of ten shillings” to the soldiers of the Devonshire Regiment, via the Mayoress of Exeter’.[30]These actions recognise the significant contribution made by Devon’s civilians throughout the war.

It is also important to acknowledge the uncertainty and difficulty of the civilian experience of the First World War wherein many of the measures introduced in the name of the war effort were not always easily acquired. There was a tension between individual priorities and national priorities that was apparent in the encounters between Devon’s elite as agents advocating the necessity of wartime mobilization and the county’s populace during the war. From these differences, fascinatingly, many of the men, women, and children of Devon crucially turned instead to humanitarian methods for supporting the Western Front. In the midst of our intellectual battle over the causes and conflict of the First World War, we would do well to remember the unique local contributions of the Home Front.


[1] John Horne, ‘Introduction: mobilizing for “total war”, 1914-1918’ in J. Horne ed., State, Society and Mobilization in Europe during the First World War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997) p. 1.

[2] Gerard J. DeGroot, Blighty: British Society in the Era of the Great War(Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 1996), Jay Winter and Jean-Louis Robert eds., Capital Cities at War: Paris, London, Berlin, 1914-1919(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), George Robb, British Culture and the First World War (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002), Jay Winter and Jean-Louis Robert eds., Capital Cities at War: Paris, London, Berlin, 1914-1919Volume 2: A Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), Adrian Gregory, The Last Great War: British Society and the First World War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008),Tammy M. Proctor, Civilians in a World at War, 1914-1918 (New York: New York University Press, 2010), Adrian Gregory, ‘Britain and Ireland’ in J. Horne ed., A Companion to World War I (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012) pp. 403-417.

[3] Susan R. Grayzel, Women’s Identities at War: Gender, Motherhood, and Politics in Britain and France during the First World War (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999) p. 7.

[4] John Williams, The Home Fronts: Britain, France and Germany, 1914-1918 (London: Constable, 1972), Trevor Wilson, The Myriad Faces of War: Britain and the Great War, 1914-1918 (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1986), Arthur Marwick, The Deluge: British Society and the First World War, 2nd edn (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

[5] Keith Grieves, ‘The quiet of the country and the restless excitement of the towns: rural perspectives on the home front, 1914-1918’ in M. Tebbutt ed., Rural and Urban Encounters in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: Regional Perspectives (Manchester: Conference of Regional and Local Historians, 2004), p. 94.

[6] Ibid., p. 80.

[7] Gerald Gliddon ed., Norfolk & Suffolk in the Great War (Norwich: Gliddon Books, 1988), Keith Grieves, Sussex in the First World War(Lewes: Sussex Record Office, 2004), David Parker, Hertfordshire Children in War and Peace, 1914-1939 (Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2007). Paul Rusiecki, The Impact of Catastrophe: The people of Essex and the First World War (1914-1918) (Chelmsford: Essex Record Office, 2008).

[8] Pierre Purseigle, ‘Beyond and Below the Nations: Towards a Comparative History of Local Communities at War’ in J. Macleod and P. Purseigle eds., Uncovered Fields: Perspectives in First World War Studies (Leiden: Brill, 2004) pp. 95-123, Helen B. McCartney, Citizen Soldiers: The Liverpool Territorial’s in the First World War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), Helen Townsley, ‘The First World War and Voluntary Recruitment: A forum for regional identity? An analysis of the nature, expression and significance of regional identity in Hull, 1900 -1916’, University of Sussex, PhD thesis, 2008, Paul Rusiecki, The Impact of Catastrophe: The people of Essex and the First World War (1914-1918) (Chelmsford: Essex Record Office, 2008).

[9] Keith Grieves, ‘“Lowther’s Lambs”: Rural Paternalism and Voluntary Recruitment in the First World War’, Rural History Vol. 4, 1 (1993) pp. 55-75.

[10] ‘Devonshire and the War’ in R. Pearse Chope ed., Devonian Year Book 1915 (London: The London Devonian Association, 1915) p. 41,Western Times, 24 November 1914, p. 5, Devon and Exeter Gazette, 10 December 1914, p. 2.

[11] Major General Laye, ‘The Nation’s Call’, Dawlish Gazette, 15 September 1914.

[12] Western Times, 8 December 1914, p. 3.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Plymouth and West Devon Record Office: 1305/10, ‘Local Patriotism and Organisation in 1803 (By Dr. Trelawny-Ross)’, 1914, p. 8, Western Morning News, 15 December 1914, p. 4.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Devon and Exeter Gazette, 20 February 1915, p. 3.

[17] Western Morning News, 18 February 1915, p. 3.

[18] Gregory, The Last Great War, p. 221.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Devon Heritage Centre: FB 12/6/1, Documents of Town Clerk, 1919, p. 2.

[21] Thekla Bowser, The Story of V.A.D. work in the Great War, (London: Imperial War Museum, 2003) p. 94.

[22] Emily Fortescue, ‘Devon and the Red Cross’, Devon and Exeter Gazette, 8 November 1918, p. 5.

[23] Ibid.

[24] John Morton, The Voluntary Recruiting Movement in Britain, 1914-1916 (New York: Garland Publishing, 1982), Peter Simkins, Kitchener’s Army: The raising of the new armies, 1914-1916 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2007).

[25] Paul Ward, ‘“Women of Britain Say Go!”: Women’s patriotism in the First World War’, Twentieth Century British History, Vol. 12, 1 (2001) p. 38.

[26] DHC: 1262M/FH42, Typescript memoirs for the war years, 1919, p. 17.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Catriona Pennell, A Kingdom United: Popular Responses to the Outbreak of the First World War in Britain and Ireland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012) p. 75.

[29] North Devon Record Office: 1903C/EEL, Holy Trinity Boys’ School, Barnstaple, School Log Book, 4 September 1914 as cited in Pennell, A Kingdom United, p. 75.

[30] NDRO: 3073CEEL, Huntshaw C. E. National School, Barnstaple, School Log Book, 1893-1915, 15 December 1914 as cited in Pennell, A Kingdom United, p. 75.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *