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Total War: Family, Community, and Identity during the First World War

Abstract and Keywords

Total war had a specific gendered meaning in the First World War in that it required the participation of men, women, and children in the maintenance of gendered notions of warriors, nurturers, workers, and patriots. Yet each of these ideals was also questioned and destabilized by war. Much of the work of war rests on families, who are expected to maintain households, livelihoods, and emotional ties with men far from their homes. As actors in the world’s first ‘total war’, women and men in Europe witnessed a multi-year conflict that changed their relationships to states in profound ways and reshaped assumptions about generation, family roles, and sexuality, beginning a transformation that would continue in the Second World War. While scholars have disagreed about the extent and nature of total war, few dispute that a fundamental restructuring of citizens’ lives and relationships occurred as a result of the First World War.

Keywords: family, gender, religion, social class, marriage, work

In his 1925 melodramatic film Die Freudlose Gasse (Joyless Street), G. W. Pabst painted a bleak picture of life in post-war Vienna, where the desperate poor wait in endless food queues or prostitute themselves, while the rich and prosperous wallow in corruption and greed.1 Family ties have not vanished, but they are frayed from the stresses of wartime shortages and the bleakness of a cold hungry winter. Pabst’s film, which was based on a post-war novel by Hugo Bettauer, admirably captures the impact of the First World War on ordinary families by highlighting rends in the social fabric. The main action focuses on three motifs: eroding class divisions, topsy-turvy gender roles, and the gap between the destitute and those profiting from their despair. Each of these themes in some way reflects the broader impact of the First World War on ordinary families in Europe.

In the film, two women from different backgrounds face almost identical dilemmas, but each chooses a different path. Grete, the middle-class young typist with a father who has reverted to a childlike dependence, successfully avoids the trap of prostitution with the help of an American aid worker who ‘saves’ her. Working-class Maria has no such luck, and in trying to escape her abusive, maimed father and downtrodden mother, she trusts the wrong people and ends up both a prostitute and a murderess. Other characters are reminiscent of wartime archetypes: the rich and greedy butcher, the millionaire war profiteers, the madam of a brothel, the morally upright American. In the film, changing gender roles are particularly emphasized. The queues for food are filled with sombre women and children as are the brothel and the respectable workplaces. Many of the patriarchs in the film are scarred, emotionally or physically, and the younger men have adopted a ‘live while you can’ ethos that has little regard for the ties of family life. The film, heavily censored in Europe and the United States, serves as a moving testament to war’s shattering of social norms and certainties.2

Certainly not all of Europe faced the bleak prospects of Pabst’s Melchior Street, but most people did experience the disruption of family life, a changed gender dynamic, (p. 62) eroding class lines, new racial divides, and fractured communities as a result of war. As actors in the world’s first ‘total war’, women and men in Europe witnessed a multi-year conflict that changed their relationships to states in profound ways and reshaped assumptions about generation, family roles, and sexuality, beginning a transformation that would continue in the Second World War. While scholars have disagreed about the extent and nature of total war, few dispute that a fundamental restructuring of citizens’ lives and relationships occurred as a result of the First World War.

One of the first signs of war to affect life at the communal and familial level was the disruption of work and community patterns. The massive mobilization of manpower throughout European nations led to immediate shortages in agricultural labour for the autumn harvests and created needs for replacement workers in many industries. For example, roughly two-fifths of agricultural labourers in Russia were mobilized along with 10 per cent of the horses, leading to the use of women, youth, and prisoners for planting, harvesting, and maintenance of fields.3 In Britain, 16,000 women worked as members of the Women’s Land Army, often alongside or near more than 30,000 German POWs employed in agricultural work.4 These substitutions had implications for traditional household work, gendered divisions of labour, and consumption patterns over the course of the war. Poor agricultural yield led to shortages of basic foodstuffs, only exacerbating the problems. In the Ottoman Empire, women tried to bring in crops, often in organized battalions under army supervision, but agricultural production still fell sharply by 1918 to only 60 per cent of its 1914 levels.5

Beyond the problem of labour, rural regions faced underproduction of their land or worse, rotting crops in the fields. Galicia had provided up to a third of the grain production for the Austro-Hungarian Empire prior to the war, but its devastation during the Russian occupation and retreat early in the war left the whole zone unable to recover during the war years.6 Added to these difficulties was the widespread practice of requisitioning nitrate for munitions, which made it difficult to obtain fertilizer, a staple of many farm communities by 1914. Marie Pireaud, a French peasant, highlights all these headaches in her correspondence with her husband. Describing the strain war brought to rural households, Marie complained about the difficulty of finding agricultural labour, fertilizer, fodder, and farm animals. High prices and military requisitioning contributed to the problem, but at least Marie was able to work together with family and friends to bring in a harvest each year of the war, although at great cost. As she told her husband, ‘Console yourself it’s the same everywhere and how many will there be who will not have enough to live.’7

The state’s need for war materials led women to flood into munitions, steel, and garment industries, helping to replace men and also to absorb the increased wartime demand for certain goods. Women, who had been barely represented in metalworking occupations in France prior to 1914, made up a quarter of the workers in that industry by 1918; in Britain, employed women in Britain went from just under 6 million to 7.3 million, and much of the rise in numbers can be attributed to wartime munitions industries8 Germany saw a steady rise in numbers of women employed in munitions, and by 1917 more than 50 per cent of the labour force in armaments was female.9 In the Julian (p. 63) Alps (Italy and Slovenia, today), thousands of women even worked as porters, delivering supplies to the men engaged in mountain combat, and in the Ottoman Empire, women built roads.10 Throughout Europe, women tended to the work of the nation—harvest, policing, clerical work, industry, transport—assisted by children and by men too old to go to war. Gender and age delineated the militarized home in relationship to the combat zones.11

Not only were workplaces transformed, but education at all levels was reshaped by war. Universities emptied of men throughout the belligerent nations, and some institutions shut their doors for the duration of the war. The University of Paris saw a drop from 14,000 students to 3,000 students during the first year of the war, and by October 1914, Cambridge enrolment was down by 50 per cent.12 For younger schoolchildren, destruction of their homes and schools as well as heightened work obligations made it difficult for them to attend classes at all in some areas. Many older children took over childcare duties for absent fathers and mothers who had taken up paid work. Other states enlisted the work of children in formal ways. The Habsburg Empire devised a Pupils’ Volunteer Corps, which became a teen work brigade for use in agriculture, transport, and other necessary occupations. Younger children did their war work at school by knitting, rolling cigarettes, or making bandages.13 Shortages of teachers also exacerbated the problem of effective wartime schooling; in France, roughly 30,000 teachers were mobilized for service.14 Schools faced requisition for military and municipal requirements, and classrooms became soup kitchens, hospital wards, and billets in support of the war machine. When children did go to school, the wartime curriculum emphasized patriotic service and that militarized many of their exercises. French children learned arithmetic by adding war loan amounts and worked on memorization of the ‘Ten Commandments of Victory’.15 In Germany, children collected scrap for the war effort, foraged for food, and learned about wartime cooking and conservation.16 The disruptions of schooldays, the need for adolescent labour, and the general social disintegration of structures for youth led to increases in rates of petty crime among young people in many nations. Added to this problem were high rates of sick and underweight children, so states became increasingly concerned about the future of their youth. In Vienna, for instance, officials worried about a new ‘generation of war-damaged degenerates’ especially since clinics were admitting underweight children and documenting a high incidence of nervous conditions, such as bed-wetting.17

Beyond the community stalwarts of work and education, people also lost access to medical personnel, sometimes creating profound psychological and physical trauma. Perhaps the most tragic example of disruption of everyday life is in the impact of war on public health. People of all ages suffered throughout Europe as the war continued because of shortages of soap, housing, and heating fuel. Lack of soap, for instance, meant that clothing and bodies drew lice, and civilian families also had to contend with skin diseases such as scabies and impetigo. In Serbia, a quarter of its trained doctors perished during the war, leaving populations without access to basic medical care.18 Shortages of medicine and personnel exacerbated a terrible situation in the countryside, where more than 200,000 Serb civilians died from a typhus epidemic in the first (p. 64) year of the war.19 Serbia, however, was not alone in shortages of medical caregivers. Leo van Bergen documents the vacuum left by conscription of medical providers in the belligerent nations:


1 doctor

per 2,350 people


1 doctor

per 5,800 people


1 doctor

per 14,000 people20

Such gaps in medical and dental care left populations extremely vulnerable, and the influenza epidemic of 1918 worsened the problem with floods of patients at local clinics.

If new work patterns, educational problems, and lack of basic health care were not difficult enough, families faced separation and grief. The massive casualties of wartime, the hasty interment of bodies at battlefields, poor communication, and reduced access to spiritual counsel (as many clergy also went to war) led to shifts in mourning rituals and religious devotion. The bonds of community that had framed parish life in Christian Europe suffered especially from the conscription of religious leaders and the crisis of authority that their absence brought. In their study of civilians in wartime Europe, Annette Becker and Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau note the rise in spirituality in wartime, while also explaining its heterogeneity:

soldiers and their families revived old forms of devotion, and ancient ‘superstitions’ arose again among people who were still very close to their rural roots. (This was particularly true of Italy.) A wartime religion developed that included traditional religious services and spiritualism, prayers and amulets, the sufferings of Christ and the intercession of saints, ordinary piety and the belief in supernatural signs.21

While often still attending church or chapel, some Europeans turned to objects for comfort, taking solace from the material world. Jay Winter has also documented this rise of popular religious practice, from Italian soldiers carrying sacks of native soil to French amulets for protection to seances aiming to speak with the departed.22 Such religiosity sustained families separated by war and fearful of death, but it also weakened the authority of many leaders of organized religion. War pitted religious loyalties against political identities, as in the case of Muslims in the British Empire who were torn between imperial allegiance and a call by some religious leaders for support of the Ottomans.

The heightened atmosphere of patriotism, which was rendered as a fervent civic religion, also shifted popular notions of faith. Throughout the belligerent states, myths of personality emerged that valorized military leaders, giving them almost godlike qualities, while memorials to the fallen became new places of worship and reverence. Religious faith could be co-opted by wartime leaders and used to justify military service and acts of violence, as with the German military’s use of the phrase Gott Mit Uns (God (p. 65) with us) on army belts and other items. Posters aimed at mobilizing civilians relied heavily on religious imagery to motivate and cajole patriotic participation. In short, wartime destabilized religious identities.

For European Jews, the war brought different kinds of transformation, especially in Poland, Lithuania, and the so-called ‘Pale’ of Russian settlement. Wartime policies relocated thousands of homes away from the front, while troop occupations and state interventions in other regions destroyed traditional village life. Russian leaders forced nearly half a million Jews to move from the Polish/Russian borderlands into the Russian interior in 1915 alone.23 While this destruction of Jewish communal life may have opened the door for more secular views of Jewish identity, including Zionism, it also reinforced deeply seated anti-Semitism in post-war states such as the Soviet Union, Poland, and Austria.24 The violence that Jews experienced during the First World War violated families and villages, leading to post-war immigration to urban areas and sometimes to other countries.

Religious identity was certainly destabilized as a result of war, but so too was ethnic and cultural identity. National minorities in all the belligerent states and their imperial holdings were called to serve their ‘nation’, leading to the growth of nationalist groups and outspoken dissent. Families who had loosely identified with multinational empires such as the Habsburg or Ottoman embraced new identities based on language and culture as a result of the wartime demands from their multinational states. Rising death tolls and the state’s inability to meet the needs of its civilian population for food and shelter strained the loyalties of minority groups. In the Habsburg lands, Czech, Hungarian, and Slovenian nationalist leaders sought to use the state’s inadequacy in wartime to build their cases for separate nationhood and self-determination.25 Other nationalist movements—in Ireland, central Europe, Belgium, and the Middle East—led to revivals of language and culture that had been on the decline. In some areas, disaffected citizens sought to cement ethnic or religious identities by creating separate schools and communities, hardening the lines of division between families in many villages or urban neighbourhoods. At the end of the war, ethnic violence erupted in regions where resources were scarce, leading to civil war, spontaneous violence against minority groups, and state-sponsored population exchanges.

The war also exposed racial divides in many communities or created racial tension with the movement of diverse peoples into European theatres of war. All the belligerent nations used imperial labourers for military work and sometimes for civilian tasks as well, bringing men from North, East, and West Africa, Indochina, China, and India into European communities. In France, for example, more than 300,000 colonial and foreign labourers worked in French civilian industries or for the armed forces during the war, especially in ports, industrial cities, and staging zones near the front.26 Additionally, more than half a million people from the French Empire donned uniforms to fight in Europe.27 The arrival of foreign men in Europe led to great fears among officials of racial mixing, and the presence of imperial citizens sparked spontaneous violence in some regions. Europeans, already hyped up by war and nationalist propaganda, expressed a range of curiosity, fear, excitement, and disdain in their interactions with people who (p. 66) had lived at a distance in the past. As with class, ethnicity, and religion, race served as a line that war exposed.

Wartime shortages of resources and official rationing ignited many of these community divisions, as constituencies sought access to food, fuel, and clothing. Shared sacrifice was an important part of state propaganda, but the reality often fell short. Disputes between urban and rural households could be particularly fierce, given that agricultural communities often had power over the resources that they sold to cities. As the war ground on, these resentments led to food riots, smuggling, theft, and hoarding, all practices that undermined social life and the moral economy. Occupied zones saw especially fierce competition for resources as army requisitioning claimed food, fabric, animals, fuel, and metals from wartime households. Mary Thorp, a British governess in Brussels, described the scene by summer 1918:

The prices of everything are rising daily: 3 frs 25 now, for an ordinary stick of chocolate, worth a penny formerly. Cherries 15 frs a kilo … Pieces of old india-rubber tyres hidden away from the requisitions are sold very dear for nailing onto boots, already some weeks ago I paid 5 frs for a piece for heels only. Such depression everywhere for want of food, and now train-loads of our new potatoes are being sent to Austria, with ‘Aukraine’ painted on the waggons, to make believe in Austria they came from there. Here, the alimentation is selling about ½ a kilo of potatoes per person, now & then, & vegetables are hardly seen for sale, when they are, the price is fabulous.28

In such conditions, a thriving smuggling economy emerged and arrest records from the war show men, women, and children caught illegally trading butter, potatoes, and leather, among other things.

Army and civilian officials sought to control such behaviours and the black markets springing up throughout Europe by instituting rationing and commissioning the creation of ersatz products, but their efforts were only partly successful, especially by 1918. Many families existed on ‘war bread’ by 1917, which at its best was a heavy dark bread made with soy, potatoes, and grains other than wheat. Other ersatz products included coffee made from roasted rye (torréaline), rutabagas instead of potatoes, and a malted war beer (Kriegsbier).29 Rationing developed as needs arose, but all of Europe had embraced some form of rationing by the last year of the war. The most common products to be controlled were bread, sugar, fats, fuel, soap, and potatoes.

Women were the front-line soldiers in the ‘food front,’ as civilian Ernst Gläser reported: ‘A new front was created. It was held by the women, against an entente of field gendarmes and controllers.’30 Women waited in interminable queues, then attempted to organize the resources they could find for optimum use. Maureen Healy documented that on any given day in 1917, more than 12 per cent of Vienna’s population was standing in shopping queues.31 Propaganda also targeted women, asking them to conserve, to sacrifice, and to endure. Governments issued war recipe books and published tips in newspapers to help women cope with shortages in basic pantry items. For the most part, women did what their state asked of them, but in the fight to feed their families, (p. 67) some engaged in illegal trading or smuggling in order to eat. As prices rose, so did black market activities. As Avner Offer has argued, states who failed to provide basics for their citizens ‘forced every citizen into breaking the law’ in order to live.32 In cities, working women rioted and protested for food, especially in the large cities suffering from the blockade, such as Berlin. As Belinda Davis has argued, spontaneous riots broke out when prices rose or shortages of basic foodstuffs became acute, with urban women rioting over butter, potatoes, and bread in German cities.33

The chaos accompanying wartime brought with it another wartime creation that had profound implications for many families. The First World War witnessed an explosion of war relief organizations that employed voluntary workers throughout Europe and that functioned as surrogate families for war orphans, displaced people, and prisoners, among others. Traditional local welfare agencies found themselves subsumed in broader national or international organizations, and Americans, in particular, staffed these relief and aid agencies during and after the war. Examples of this aid ranged from soup kitchens in Belgium to house-building in northern France. In Germany, English Quaker pacifists partnered with a local organization to relieve the distress of civilian women and children, while diplomats from multiple countries dealt with stranded citizens and refugees in the chaos of war.34 Once the war ended, these aid agencies expanded considerably, providing meals for schoolchildren throughout Europe under the auspices of the American Relief Administration and other private entities while also contributing to the rebuilding of Europe’s physical environment through charitable schemes.

Aid targeted not just the poor, for increasingly the middle classes required relief from distress. In Vienna, for example, a separate system of restaurant relief was organized for the ‘better-off’ classes in order to spare them from the indignity of queuing up at a public soup kitchen. American relief in occupied Belgium also created a separate branch of ‘discrete assistance’ for people of means suddenly dislocated by war. In each case, aid workers felt it was important to maintain class divisions in order to retain a sense of social order in the midst of war. Indeed, despite the fact that social class status was in flux during the war, class identities emerged shaken, but intact, from the First World War. In Britain and Germany, the middle classes became more multifaceted in terms of occupational range, but retained their traditional relationship to landed elites and to workers. Germany’s industrial leaders, for example, joined forces with socialist and army officials in the aftermath of the 1918 revolution to establish mechanisms (such as collective bargaining) for limiting the reach of the revolution and to sustain the social power of military and industrial elites.35 In short, while some social mobility emerged during the war, the overwhelming result was maintenance of socio-economic distinctions in many nations.

This did not mean that labour radicalism was absent, and in fact, labour union membership rose throughout Europe. In Britain, it doubled from 1913 to 1920, and in Hungary, unions attracted more than seven times their pre-war numbers.36 Despite rising numbers, gender continued to play a role in the division of workers in industrial settings. Many women found themselves in categories that excluded them from union membership or higher wages, and male workers fiercely protected their masculine privilege (p. 68) and the higher wages that accompanied that status. Trade organizations and industries found themselves torn between older understandings of skill and status and the needs of a wartime economy. Amidst these tensions, unions spearheaded industrial actions with a variety of catalysts, from concerns about meagre rations to wage pressures to anti-war stances. Germany witnessed a major increase in work stoppages—from 137 in 1915 to 561 in 1917.37 It was difficult for workers to unify and gain much traction, especially because of social pressures to support the war effort. For example, one of Germany’s largest strikes in January 1918 involved nearly half a million workers, but it was quickly suppressed by police and military units. As punishment for the strikes, thousands of workers were tried or conscripted into penal battalions.38 Of course, the most severe labour activism helped spark revolutions, such as the cataclysm of the October Revolution in Russia in 1917. The revolution and the long civil war that followed proved catastrophic for ordinary people in Russia, with major physical destruction of property, dislocation of millions, and starvation conditions during the famine of the 1920s.

The aftermath of war continued to disrupt work lives for many citizens of European nations. Strikes and economic instability plagued cities from Italy to France to Germany. Demobilization of millions of soldiers led to women and youth losing their jobs, while men competed for work in a changed post-war political and economic environment. For the middle classes, it is important to note that there was a widespread feeling of instability, especially among the lower middle classes, that would only be exacerbated by post-war hyperinflation in some nations and by the worldwide depression after 1929. Areas that had been occupied or in active military zones often lacked basic equipment and rail links, so it was difficult to restart industry. In Belgium, for instance, some towns had been burned to the ground, and the Germans had stripped towns of vital supplies of metals, wool, draught animals, and other economic necessities.39 Poland, which suffered some of the same loss of machinery, land, and technology as Belgium, faced a continued conflict into the 1920s. American Chauncey McCormick described conditions in a January 1919 letter home:

Poland is now at war on four fronts. Northeast the Russian Bolsheviks are attacking, East and Southeast the Ruthenian Bolsheviks, Southwest the Czechs so that railroad and telegraph with Vienna is now cut off. East the Germans are attacking … With the aid of an armoured train I got into Lwow (Lemberg or Leopol) with a carload of condensed milk. The children are literally dying and the town is under constant bombardment. School boys and women are armed and defending the city. It is quite the most awful sight I ever saw.40

It is hard to estimate the impact of such conditions on family life, education, and social stability in the short and long term, especially given the losses that these families had already sustained as a result of war.

Loss of loved ones to war also took an enormous toll on family life throughout Europe. Military losses varied considerably across nations, but each belligerent saw enormous decreases in birth rate during the war and demographic decimation of young men. Table 3.1 captures some of the variety and helps highlight the grief blanketing European households by 1918. (p. 69)

Table 3.1 Deaths as a percentage of men mobilized


Deaths as a percentage of men mobilized















Note: Exact numbers are hard to pinpoint, but these are accepted approximations: Stéphane Audoin- Rouzeau and Annette Becker, 14–18: Understanding the Great War (New York: Hill and Wang, 2000), 21; Ian F. W. Beckett, The Great War 1914–1918 (Harlow: Longman, 2001), 310–12.

Another way to think about the enormity of these losses is to consider the deaths among certain groups. Of all German men who were of university age (19–22) in 1914, more than a third died before the armistice.41 Russia’s fighting forces had a daily attrition rate (killed or missing) of 1,459 per day.42 These mortality rates when combined with high levels of physical and psychological trauma wreaked havoc on family life in Europe.

Beyond the stark impacts of injury and death on families, the conflict of 1914–18 also highlighted new patterns of sexuality and marriage. The wartime crisis allowed states to expand their role in individual and familial life, and governments throughout Europe tried to manage sexuality, childbirth, and domestic life. Women were important to the war effort both as active participants in wartime mobilization (as caretakers and labourers) and as ideological boosts to male mobilization (as those in need of protection). Balancing these two roles, while also reining in women’s sexuality and independence, proved a difficult task for social welfare organizations and government officials.

One of the earliest and easiest ways to highlight the need for female and familial support of war was through propaganda. Posters, lecturers, films, and events all spoke of the importance of familial sacrifice—women and children became vital in these public appeals. In one of the best-known British posters, women and children stand in a doorway and watch their soldier/husband/father go to war—the caption says merely ‘Women of Britain say—GO!’43 In France, propaganda also encouraged women to maintain homes and farms while their men were gone, but they were also needed to bolster the courage of their menfolk by sending letters and packages. In fact, women’s role (p. 70) as caretaker and nurturer of men at war was institutionalized by the marraines de guerre (war godmothers) scheme, which was begun in January 1915. Women were encouraged to write letters to soldiers who did not have families (or whose families were behind enemy lines) as ‘an act of patriotism’.44 In both the British propaganda and the French godmothers schemes, women were encouraged to play a traditional role at home, waiting and supporting the soldiers at the front.

However, as the war lingered, governments throughout Europe needed women to take active roles in wartime production, both at home and increasingly through auxiliary service in the war and staging zones. Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary all created women’s work corps to help replace men at home, in occupied zones, and in combat staging areas. The German example provides a sense of the scope of this work. Roughly 90,000 women worked with Germany as part of a formal army auxiliary organization, while another 17,000 travelled to occupied and staging zones to free up men for combat.45 Women in these occupations did clerical work, laundry, cooking, and driving, among other things. Although not classified as soldiers, many of the female auxiliaries in Europe wore uniforms and lived in military housing, sometimes further destabilizing gender norms.

The presence of women at and near the fronts presented a great challenge for military planners, who saw the need to provide soldiers with ‘diversion’ but who also wanted to protect men from disease. Concern about the moral and physical health of the soldier led to efforts to control women’s sexuality, through the creation of regulated or sponsored brothels (such as the French maisons tolerées) and through mandatory medical inspections of women thought to be involved in prostitution. In the reflections she published in 1916, American Ellen La Motte commented on the contradictory treatment of women in the war zone in Europe:

There are many women at the Front … there are the Belgian women, who live in the War Zone, for at present there is a little strip of Belgium left, and all the civilians have not been evacuated from the Army Zone. So there are plenty of women, first and last. Better ones for the officers, naturally, just as the officers’ mess is of better quality than that of the common soldiers. But always there are plenty of women. Never wives, who mean responsibility, but just women, who only mean distraction and amusement, just as food and wine. So wives are forbidden, because lowering to the morale, but women are winked at, because they cheer and refresh the troops.46

La Motte cannot reconcile the regard the men in her hospital have for their wives at home and their obsessive interest in letters, photographs, and news from home with their treatment of women as sex objects at the front. This divide, exposed in agonizing detail with cases of venereal disease, marks the gendered distinctions of wartime between the women representing ‘home’ and ‘family’ and the women who, as La Motte notes, function as mere materials of war.

Venereal disease, a serious problem for the armies in the First World War, became something to fight not just at the battle fronts, but at home as well. At the fronts, governments issued prophylactic kits, set up VD ‘emergency stations’ for men to seek (p. 71) treatment after sex with a prostitute, and issued harsh penalties (such as loss of pay) for infection. At home, propaganda targeted men in training camps and laws targeted women who transmitted venereal disease to soldiers. An example of such legislation is Britain’s Defence of the Realm Act, an ever-expanding series of regulations that marked an unprecedented intervention in the lives of citizens. Beyond regulating such things as pub hours, hiring age, and crop prices, it specifically targeted women as a class and sought to regulate venereal disease by curbing women’s sexuality. In its Regulation 40D, the Act allowed compulsory medical examinations of women suspected of having venereal disease; it also criminalized infected women who had sex with soldiers, even if those men were their husbands and even if those same men had infected the women in the first place.47

Indeed, while wartime propaganda idealized women as wives waiting at home, countervailing notions of women as morally deviant and suspect, especially in their relations with soldiers, also became a feature of the wartime narrative. Families could serve as both the ideal for which men were fighting and the thing that was being lost through the prolonged war. Men worried about their wives’ faithfulness, as in the case of Paul Pireaud, who wrote home to his French wife in 1917, hoping that she had ‘not gone off with an American’.48 This worry about infidelity was particularly true for those living in occupied zones where accusations of collaboration were common. Women who befriended enemy soldiers or who had relationships with them could be subject to physical violence and public shaming. The lines between collaboration and coercion were never clear, however, and rape was unevenly reported in communities that housed large numbers of soldiers. In a commission’s investigation of atrocities in Belgium, the report noted that rape cases were ‘naturally hidden by the families’.49 Despite reticence in reporting rape, coercive sexual attacks on women were a feature of all invasions and occupations during the First World War, and in some cases, they may have constituted a deliberate strategy of shaming or destroying family and community identities, as in the case of Ottoman destruction of Armenians.50

For families displaced by war, either through the destruction of their homes or because they fled the violence of war, refuge was difficult to find. In Europe, approximately 10 million people became refugees over the course of the war—5.5 million of those were in Russia alone.51 Romania, which only entered the war in 1916, was quickly occupied, leading to a massive retreat of its citizenry to Moldavia. The resulting overcrowding and chaos led to epidemic disease and grinding poverty for both the refugees and their overwhelmed Moldavian hosts.52 The long-term impact of dislocation, violence, and homelessness is difficult to document, especially in its disruptive effects on masculine household authority, family cohesion, and daily routine. For some families, they could never go home because their homelands had altered. French and Russian villages disappeared from the map during battles, while more than 1.6 million people in the former Ottoman Empire found themselves forcibly ‘exchanged’ under the Treaty of Lausanne (1923).53

Even those relatively protected from the violence and dislocation of war in distant home fronts found their families affected by shifts in marriage and divorce patterns. Jay Winter chronicled some of these changes for Britain and France, and his work serves as an example of some of the demographic changes the war wrought. In France, marriage (p. 72) patterns shifted to account for wartime losses, with higher marriage rates for widowers and divorced men as well as a trend towards women marrying men who were their own age or younger. Britain, however, saw little change in its marriage patterns into the 1920s except for a tendency for marriage across geographical and social divides. What did change in Britain was a higher rate of divorce by the 1920s.54 Birth rates also fluctuated as a result of war, with a steep decrease during the war years, followed by increases in the immediate aftermath. Throughout Europe, though, the trend for a falling birth rate continued into the 1920s, especially in industrialized nations such as Germany and Britain.


When the First World War ended in 1918, Europeans began to take stock of the devastation. In some areas such as Poland and Russia, civil war meant that violence and hunger continued, adding to the misery and loss of war. Widespread incidence of tuberculosis required medical intervention in central Europe, while aid organizations rushed sustenance to children in the defeated nations. War orphans, refugees, and people whose countries had disappeared required state help in finding homes and livelihoods. Physical devastation meant rebuilding of agriculture, industry, and housing in many of the areas where combat had occurred. For families, the longed-for reunion with demobilized soldiers could be both joyful and traumatic, especially given the number of men suffering from physical and psychological trauma as a result of war. Throughout Europe, widows were omnipresent; in Germany and France, the war widowed more than 600,000 women in each country.55 Widows relied on newly created pensions from states, yet they still struggled to survive in the lean post-war years. Children’s homes transformed as well. Even conservative estimates from the war count at least 9 million children whose fathers died in the war or soon afterwards from their wounds. Of those men who did return, more than 8 million were disabled for life, and countless others suffered physical and psychological pain in the post-war years.56 Men returned to wives who had worked in new jobs in the war and to children who did not know them. For many, this new reality of home and workplace called into question their masculinity and led to depression, domestic violence, and other social adjustment issues. Reforming the home became a priority for individuals and governments, and the post-war backlash against independent women was widespread.

In considering the issue of the family and gender in the First World War, the main question that remains difficult to answer is the extent to which family life was mobilized and militarized by war between 1914 and 1918. Did anything really change? Cynthia Enloe argues that all war is organized on the basis of gender and that militarization of the household is a crucial precondition for war, while other scholars see the war as a temporary aberration that disrupted family life and gender norms for the duration of the conflict, but a post-war backlash ensured a return of order.57 Total war had a specific gendered meaning in the First World War in that it required the participation of men, (p. 73) women, and children in the maintenance of gendered notions of warriors, nurturers, workers, and patriots. Yet each of these ideals was also questioned and destabilized by war. What is clear is that much of the work of war rests on families, who are expected to maintain households, livelihoods, and emotional ties with men far from their homes. In an essay for an Italian newspaper, Maria Gioia lays bare the dilemma of families, and especially of mothers, in a Europe at war:

If we were to ask all the mothers of Europe, ‘Which should go to combat, you or your son?’ the mothers of Europe would answer: ‘Take me!’ But there is no choice here, the son is called, and he himself says, ‘If I don’t go they will shoot me!’ What is a mother to do? You can come home uninjured from a war, not from an execution. It is not egoism that holds her back, but the concept of a power that cannot be resisted and the terror of aggravating the destiny of a son. […] And while men make war, in the silence and pain perhaps a new harvest of proposals, ideals, and courage is growing.58


(1.) Die Freudlose Gasse (1925). A 2009 DVD produced in Germany and a 1990 VHS Kino International are uncensored versions of the film—most other available prints are heavily censored.

(2.) For an analysis of the film, especially in regard to gender, see Patrice Petro, Joyless Streets: Women and Melodramatic Representation in Weimar Germany (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), 199–219.

(3.) Peter Gatrell, Russia’s First World War: A Social and Cultural History (Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2005), 155–60.

(4.) Caroline Dakers, The Countryside at War, 1914–1918 (London: Constable, 1987), 149–53.

(5.) Şevket Pamuk, ‘The Ottoman Economy in World War I’, in Stephen Broadberry and Mark Harrison (eds.), The Economics of World War I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 120–4.

(6.) Max-Stephan Schulze, ‘Austria-Hungary’s Economy in World War I’, in Broadberry and Harrison (eds.), The Economics of World War I, 92.

(7.) Quoted in Martha Hanna, Your Death Would be Mine: Paul and Marie Pireaud in the Great War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 52–3.

(8.) Laura Lee Downs, Manufacturing Inequality: Gender Division in the French and British Metalworking Industries, 1914–1939 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), 41, and Angela Woollacott, On Her Their Lives Depend: Munitions Workers in the Great War (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994), 17.

(9.) Belinda Davis, Home Fires Burning: Food, Politics, and Everyday Life in World War I Berlin (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 176.

(10.) Donne nella grande guerra (Gorizia: Libreria Editrice Goriziana, 2012), 56–7. For the experience of Ottoman women, see Yigit Akin, ‘War, Women and the State: The Politics of Sacrifice in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War’, Journal of Women’s History, 26/3 (2014), 12–35.

(11.) Tammy Proctor, Civilians in a World at War, 1914–1918 (New York: New York University Press, 2010), 67–72.

(12.) Martha Hanna, The Mobilization of Intellect: French Scholars and Writers during the Great War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), 70, and ‘Cambridge Gone to the War’, The Times, 26 October 1914, 3.

(13.) Maureen Healy, Vienna and the Fall of the Habsburg Empire: Total War and Everyday Life in World War I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 241–3.

(14.) Joseph F. Byrnes, Catholic and French Forever: Religious and National Identity in Modern France (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005), 168.

(15.) Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, ‘Children and the Primary Schools of France, 1914–1918’, in John Horne (ed.), State, Society and Mobilization in Europe during the First World War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 45.

(16.) Roger Chickering, The Great War and Urban Life in Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 500–7.

(18.) Dragan Živojinović, ‘Serbia and Montenegro: The Home Front, 1914–1918’, in Béla Király and Nándor F. Dreisziger (eds.), War and Society in East Central Europe (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 243.

(19.) Dragolioub Yovanovitch, Les Effets économiques et sociaux de la guerre en Serbie (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1930), 13, and Leo Van Bergen, Before My Helpless Sight: Suffering, Dying, and Military Medicine on the Western Front, 1914–1918 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), 23–5.

(21.) Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker, 14–18: Understanding the Great War (New York: Hill and Wang, 2000), 114.

(22.) Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 54–77.

(23.) Carole Fink, Defending the Rights of Others: The Great Powers, the Jews, and International Minority Protections, 1878–1938 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 71.

(24.) Joshua A. Sanborn, Drafting the Russian Nation: Military Conscription, Total War, and Mass Politics, 1905–1925 (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2003), 119–24; Aviel Roshwald, ‘Jewish Cultural Identity in Eastern and Central Europe during the Great War’, in Roshwald and Richard Stites (eds.), European Culture in the Great War: The Arts, Entertainment, and Propaganda (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 124–5.

(25.) Aviel Roshwald, Ethnic Nationalism & the Fall of Empires: Central Europe, Russia & the Middle East, 1914–1923 (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), 70–90.

(26.) Tyler Stovall, ‘The Color Line behind the Lines: Racial Violence in France during the Great War’, American Historical Review, 103/3 (June 1998), 741–2.

(27.) Richard S. Fogarty, Race and War in France: Colonial Subjects in the French Army, 1914–1918 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 2.

(28.) Mary Thorp, ‘Local Gossip and “Side-shows” of the War during the German Occupation of Belgium’, 5 July 1918; unpublished diary, Documentariecentrum Ieper, In Flanders Fields Museum, Belgium.

(30.) As quoted in C. Paul Vincent, The Politics of Hunger: The Allied Blockade of Germany, 1915–1919 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1985), 21.

(32.) Avner Offer, The First World War: An Agrarian Interpretation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 58–9.

(35.) For a full discussion of this process, see Gerald D. Feldman, Army, Industry and Labor in Germany, 1914–1918 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966).

(36.) Ian F. W. Beckett, The Great War 1914–1918 (Harlow: Longman, 2001), 320–2.

(37.) Matthew Stibbe, Germany, 1914–1933: Politics, Society and Culture (Harlow: Pearson, 2010), 51–3.

(38.) Stephen Bailey, ‘The Berlin Strike of 1918’, Central European History, 13/2 (June 1980), 158–63.

(39.) Sophie de Schaepdrijver, La Belgique et la première guerre mondiale (Brussels: Peter Lang, 2005), 291–3.

(40.) Chauncey McCormick to Edith McCormick, 19 January 1919; Chauncey McCormick papers, Box 1, Folder 1: Hoover Institution, Stanford University, California.

(43.) E. J. Kealey (artist) for the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, 1915; Imperial War Museum, Art.IWM PST 2763.

(44.) Susan R. Grayzel, Women’s Identities at War: Gender, Motherhood, and Politics in Britain and France during the First World War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 30, and Margaret H. Darrow, French Women and the First World War (Oxford: Berg, 2000), 79.

(45.) Ute Daniel, Arbeiterfrauen in der Kriegsgesellschaft: Beruf, Familie und Politik im Ersten Weltkrieg (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1989), 91–3.

(46.) Ellen N. La Motte, The Backwash of War: The Human Wreckage of the Battlefield as Witnessed by an American Hospital Nurse (New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1916), 103–6.

(47.) Claire A. Culleton, Working-Class Culture, Women, and Britain, 1914–1921 (London: Macmillan, 2000), 135–8.

(49.) John Horne, German Atrocities 1914: A History of Denial (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 196.

(50.) Alan Kramer, Dynamic of Destruction: Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 149–50.

(51.) Michael Amara, Des Belges à l’épreuve de l’exil: Les Réfugiés de la première guerre mondiale, France, Grande-Bretagne, Pays-Bas 1914–1918 (Brussels: Éditions de l’Université de Bruxelles, 2008), 12.

(52.) Maria Bucur, ‘Women’s Stories as Sites of Memory: Gender and Remembering Romania’s World Wars’, in Nancy M. Wingfield and Maria Bucur (eds.), Gender & War in Twentieth-Century Eastern Europe (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 173.

(53.) Bruce Clark, Twice a Stranger: The Mass Expulsions That Forged Modern Greece and Turkey (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 12–14.

(54.) J. M. Winter, The Great War and the British People (London: Macmillan, 1985), 250–64.

(55.) Erika Kuhlman, Of Little Comfort: War Widows, Fallen Soldiers, and the Remaking of the Nation after the Great War (New York: New York University Press, 2012), 3.

(57.) Cynthia Enloe, Does Khaki Become You? The Militarisation of Women’s Lives (London: South End Press, 1983), and Mary Louise Roberts, Civilization without Sexes: Reconstructing Gender in Postwar France, 1917–1927 (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1994).

(58.) Maria Gioia in Margaret Higonnet (ed.), Lines of Fire: Women Writers of World War I (New York: Plume, 1999), 55.