In this blog post, Jane Chapman, Professor at Lincoln University and Research Associate of Wolfson College Cambridge, looks at the ways in which manufacturing and food consumption changed during the war in the East Anglia region.
‘With its combination of small towns, industrial and agricultural communities, East Anglia is a good place to see some of the profound changes that were taking place throughout the UK, during the First World War.’ That’s according to Jane Chapman, Professor at Lincoln University and Research Associate at Wolfson College Cambridge, who worked on the World War One at Home project for the East of England.
Windows to weapons
In Essex, for example, there is a ‘hidden industrial history’ relating to the First World War, which the project has helped bring to light. As elsewhere in the UK, many medium-sized market towns in the area developed an industrial base during the conflict, with countless small businesses adapting their workshops for the war effort – going from making light bulbs to bullets, bicycle chains to machine gun housings.
Many of these diverse engineering companies have since changed or disappeared, but in some cases they are still going – Crittall Windows, for example, have been turning out steel-framed windows in Essex for over a hundred and fifty years, but during the Great War they turned their hand to making munitions. They produced millions of shells during the course of the conflict, but when they received their first order for two hundred thousand, they were given no specifications for how they should be made: they had to split a shell in half, to work out how it was put together. As Jane Chapman points out, the First World War ‘demonstrated the kind of technological enterprise and adaptability that people are capable of, when it’s called for – and these aren’t qualities, of course, which are restricted only to the British.’
The technological enterprise and adaptability that people are capable of.
In East Anglia, as elsewhere, ‘entire communities could be turned over to war-related activities. The fishing town of Brightlingsea in Essex, for example, was taken over by Australian soldiers, who practised digging in the sand as preparation for the landings at Gallipoli.’
And even academics in the East of England’s most famous university, Cambridge, could have their work taken in an entirely new direction, as a result of the war. Charles Myers, for example, found himself dealing with a new type of military casualty, as he studied the symptoms of shell-shock victims. He used hypnosis to treat them, and intervened on their behalf, saving many shell-shocked men from being shot for cowardice. Indeed, Myers was the first to draw attention to cases of post-traumatic stress disorder, as we call it now, among soldiers, and the department he founded at Cambridge University went on to become a world-leader in experimental psychology.
Fuelling the fight
With its large rural areas, the Eastern region is also a good place to examine another vitally important aspect of life on the home front during the First World War: the struggle to keep soldiers and civilians fed.
With so many farm workers away fighting, and with imports cut off by the German U-boat blockade of Britain, agriculture in the UK had to be put on an entirely new footing. Domestic food production, which had been in long-term decline, suddenly had to be boosted: at the beginning of the war the UK imported some eighty percent of its wheat. To replace the men who had gone to war, the Women’s Land Army was formed to keep farms functioning, while conscientious objectors were also made to work on the land. And parks, bits of waste ground, and even the gardens of stately homes were turned over to allotments, to grow fruit and vegetables.
Ultimately, Britain was able to avert the threat of famine, which several other combatant nations succumbed to. Nevertheless, food became extremely expensive during the First World War, and long queues were a common sight outside food shops. The British government was initially reluctant to impose controls on the prices of bread and other staples, focusing instead on passing laws that were limited in their effect: restricting the number of courses that could be consumed in public eating places, for example, and imposing fines on members of the public who fed pigeons or stray animals.
But as the Germans stepped-up their attacks on ships around the British Isles, a more drastic response had to be found. Milk, butter, margarine, flour, meat and sugar were all rationed by law from 1918, with everyone (even the King and Queen) having their own ration cards, which had to be used at designated shops.
And yet it’s true of the First World War, just as it is of the Second, that the changes in consumption brought about by conflict resulted in better health for many in the population. At the beginning of the war, the average diet for many working people consisted primarily of bread, margarine and tea. But for those better-off people who had tended to over-consume before the war, rationing put them in effect on an enforced weight-loss diet.
Another of the changes that the war brought about was the introduction of school dinners, which were intended to prevent children having to miss school to queue for food, or going hungry because their mothers had to queue so much they didn’t have time to cook.
Thinking globally, acting locally
What are some of the wider implications of the First World War, then, for the present day? For Jane Chapman, the story of food production in the UK during the conflict shows how events on the international stage can be intimately connected with what happens locally. And that has implications for some of the struggles that we are involved in, now: ‘the local is important. You can see it today with the environmental movement, with the question of food miles. But the First World War shows that the UK can be self-sufficient in food, if the will is there. The local can make good when it comes to food production.’
‘This is just one example of the value of the centenary of the First World War, in teaching us practical lessons. History is not just for the historians.’
Access more information about BBC World War One at Home (opens in new window).