WW1 Alumni

Life on the Home Front

Life on The Home Front – Alleyn's Old Boy Edgar G. Lister

When the First World War broke out in August 1914, no one anticipated that the conflict would last longer than a few months. As the war dragged on, everyday life in Britain began to change as the entire nation was mobilised to fight in a large scale conflict for the first ever. On the Home Front, civilians directly experienced the separation and tragedy of war as family members and friends chose to enlist and were called up to serve. In addition, a number of new wartime measures were introduced in Britain as agriculture and food distribution suffered from the strain of the conflict.

Growing up as part of a wartime society was an experience shared by a number of Alleyn’s students during the period of 1914-18. The uniqueness of this time has been described by Alleyn’s Old Boy, Edgar G. Lister, in his memoirs, Sketches from Life, published in 1989. The text below makes use of these memoirs to provide a personal insight into life on the Home Front during wartime.


Life on the Home Front

Edgar was just 8 years old when the First World War started but the experience of wartime Britain is one that he recalls in vivid detail. One common wartime scene noted by Edgar was the sight of massive troop movements across the city; convoys of lorries and trains ‘packed with soldiers leaning from the windows shouting and waving’, convinced that the war would be won quickly. Unfortunately, this would not turn out to be the case and as the war dragged on, life on the Home Front began to change significantly, the most noticeable differences being the introduction of rationing and the start of German Zeppelin raids over Britain.


Rationing

When we think of rationing in wartime, it is often the Second World War that comes to mind. However, rationing also played a major part in First World War. The introduction of this new measure was the result of the Germany's U-Boat strategy which saw submarines target and sink supply ships heading towards Britain. As a result, voluntary rationing was introduced in February 1917 followed by compulsory rationing in December 1917. Rationing came as a shock to the majority of the population and it was ‘far more severe’ than many imagined it to be. Coal and meat were particularly scarce and luxuries such as cocoa and chocolate were incredibly difficult to come by. As a result of such circumstances, people started to become more imaginative with their food sources, leading to rise in popularity of items such as animal organs and food manufacturing by-products. One popular item during this time was a by-product called cocoa butter. It was a ‘white suety-looking substance’, which Edgar recalled as being used by many people as a substitute for chocolate.


War Casualties

Rationing was not the only consequence of being at war for an extended period of time and as the conflict dragged on the sight of casualties and the walking wounded became a commonplace feature on the streets of London. These individuals were identified by their bright ‘hospital blue’ uniforms which they wore with their khaki peak caps and regimental badges. Most of these wounded men tended to be recovering from shell shock, trench feet or gunshot wounds and were often offered small luxuries like chocolate and cigarettes by the public to show appreciation for their wartime service. In contrast to the danger of the Western Front, the Home Front was a much safer space for soldiers to recover from their injuries and men often returned to overseas duty after recuperating.


Air-Raids

However, even at home in Britain, there was still a risk of becoming a casualty. This risk primarily came from the German Air Raids which began in January 1915 and put civilians in the firing line for the first time. These raids saw Zeppelins which could travel up to 85 mph, fly over Britain’s towns and cities and drop a substantial amount of bombs. To minimise casualties, towns and cities employed an early warning system which involved a ‘kind of projectile rocket’ being fired into the air where it exploded with a loud bang. When this signal was heard people would often take cover under their dining room tables until the ‘All Clear’ signal was given by local police or boy scouts. To combat the threat of these Zeppelin raids, towns and cities also made use of anti-aircraft guns. These were mobile and if one ‘parked in the road near your house and started banging away, you knew all about it’.

After a while of experiencing this raiding, people became somewhat blasé about the attacks. This may be due in part to the effectiveness of British anti-airship defence after 1916 which successfully checked German Zeppelin operations by interrupting radio transmissions and making full use of searchlights and guns. However, Zeppelin raids still had the potential to cause massive devastation and British measures did not always prevent destruction and casualties. This was viewed first-hand by Edgar when his Father took him to see the results of one raid in Brixton. The scene that greeted him was ‘shocking and upsetting’ – whole rooms had been exposed to view with dangerously sloping floors and pieces of cherished furniture leaning at crazy angles. These scenes resembled something from a nightmare with treasured oil paintings hanging crookedly on the wall and grand pianos threatening to come crashing down at first touch. Such a scene was not uncommon in London and although it was devastating to witness, people came to accept that this was the reality of war. As Edgar noted, there was 'no use complaining' about such hardships because if you did, there was nearly always the same answer, ‘Don’t forget, there’s a war on’.