In World War I soldiers and sailors were, for the most part, civilians, unused to military ways. Behind the front—subject to rationing and regimentation in daily living—families, too, were part of this great “total war.”
They, too, bore up under it, though in France in 1917, after the bloody failure of the “one big push,” civilian and military discontent almost broke French morale. And in Germany the armistice was the result, in part, of a psychological collapse under intolerable spiritual and material pressures.
The Germans were slow to organize for total war. They failed notably to ensure the proper and equitable distribution of food supplies, so that as 1918 wore on, whole sectors of the urban population began to suffer from malnutrition. Nor were their finances and war production managed as efficiently as industrial production before the war had led everyone to expect.
Sooner or later, all countries engaged in the war felt obliged to introduce drastic wartime economic planning. In Britain the Defense of the Realm Act clamped down severely on the right to say and do what one liked. In the United States business executives who were working for the government flocked to Washington and helped build up an enormous new central government, which regulated the economy as it had never been regulated before. And of course all the belligerents engaged in a war of propaganda or, as it came to be called later, psychological warfare.
The Allies won the battle of the production lines, in which the United States played a major part. Allied production was slow in getting started and suffered from mistakes, bottlenecks, and hasty experiments. In the beginning the Allies were often at cross-purposes in production as well as in military strategy. Nevertheless, the Allies eventually fully exploited their potential superiority over the Central Powers in material resources.
The Allies also won the most critical phase of the war of propaganda. They sought to convince the neutral world, especially the United States, Latin America and the Swiss, Dutch, Scandinavians, and Spaniards, that the Allies were fighting for the right and the Central Powers for the wrong. Most of the neutral West was early convinced that the cause of the Allies was just, or would at least prove victorious—a conviction strengthened by the public perception of the traditional liberalism of France and Britain, in contrast with the traditional autocracy of the German and Austrian empires.
Allied propaganda was one-sided and unfair, notably in accusing the Germans of frightful atrocities in Belgium. The Germans imposed rigorous military controls on conquered populations, but their record was hardly worse than what was usual in warfare. Allied propaganda also simplified and falsified the complex causes of the war, making it appear that the Germans and Austrians were wholly responsible for its outbreak.
Except in Russia, the four years of war saw no major changes in political structure. The Central Powers retained their incompletely responsible parliamentary governments, and the parliaments on the whole were reasonably submissive. Despite the strengthening of the executive in wartime, France, Britain, and the United States carried on their democratic institutions.
In Britain the skillful but indecisive Liberal leader Herbert Asquith (1852-1928) was succeeded in December 1915 by David Lloyd George, who had proved himself an admirable organizer of war production. Clemenceau—the Tiger, as he was known to his friends and enemies alike—came to power at the end of 1917, at a time when defeatism threatened both the military and the civilian strength of France. He took firm command of the war effort and disposed summarily of the disaffected politicians.
The war brought substantial changes to social life on the home front. An entire generation of young men, potential leaders in industry and politics, was destroyed in Britain and France. In both countries and in the United States women were employed in factories, on streetcars, at the lower levels of politics, and just behind the lines as nurses in military hospitals. At the end of the war, when demobilized men expected to return to their jobs, women who had acquired skills were thrown out of work, and many turned to socialism.
Moral codes concerning sexual propriety also changed, for the men felt they might never return from the front, and the old practices requiring a slow courtship were often cast aside. While the double standard in sexual con- duct was intensified—soldiers could violate the conventions of marriage without blame, while women were expected to remain faithful to their departed men—there were many who began to question these conventions. Sexual promiscuity and “social diseases” became more prevalent, as all societies began to challenge the authority of the family, the church, or the school over moral conduct.