'German soldiers in a railroad car on the way to the front during early World War I', taken in 1914

Life on the German Home Front during the First World War examined for Centenary News: how did German society adapt?

Posted on centenarynews.com on 22 April 2013
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The First World War brought about significant changes to the way people lived their lives on the home front in Germany, writing for Centenary News, Claire Wotherspoon reports.

Huge numbers of men were conscripted during the First World War in Germany and, as more were called up each year, this left the country short of male labour.

A shortfall in food importation, partly due to blockades by the Allied Forces, resulted in food shortages across Germany. Significant loss of life in the armed forces resulted in many homes being without a husband or father. So, how did German society adapt to such dramatic changes?

With mass conscription and subsequent call-ups year after year, employers were faced with the problem of filling the positions of millions of men. They opened up jobs to the remaining population on the German home front and turned to two social groups, each of which experienced the workplace differently; women and youths.

While the millions of men that made up the German army were fighting, many women and families were left to adapt to home life as they had never experienced it before.

The loss of a husband or father meant a loss of income, and families struggled to survive on government hand-outs. According to Holger Herwig in his book The First World War, by 1918 there was a 'surplus' of 2 million women, mainly widows, who were trying to live on meagre government pensions.*

It was these women upon whom Germany relied to cover the labour shortage, creating an income for families and to stabilise employment. While it seems such women played a major part in the German economy, there were some very serious disadvantages to working.

Women increasingly found themselves being treated as inferior to the men they worked alongside and those away fighting. Many employers made it clear that once the war ended their jobs would not be safe and would be re-opened to the men that had left them behind.

It was not until the Second World War that a change in attitude occurred. Instead of female identity being heavily associated with the family unit, responsible for bringing up children and completing household chores, they started to be accepted in the workplace.
In the First World War, however, women found it difficult to fit in as part of a working team. They also faced the problem of poor pay, with wages so low that many could not afford to feed their families.

Many were not paid half the amount their male counterparts earned. They were required to work long hours too, which meant that not only could they hardly afford basic necessities, but also that they had far less time to spend with their children.

It was not only women who adapted to changes in society, but young people witnessed a change in circumstances too, albeit in a rather different way.

With fathers fighting in the war and mothers being forced to work, youths spent less time in the family and in some cases were relied upon to generate household income.

Many teachers were conscripted into the army, so young people started leaving school at an earlier age because often schools did not have the facilities to carry on with their education.

Youths started to experience a new sort of independence, no longer relying on their families and schools. They began to experience financial freedom for the first time, taking up jobs working in armament plants, replacing those who had been called to war.

According to Herwig, between 1914-18 youth employment was up by 225% in the chemical branch, 97% in steel and 59% in machinery.* It was the young people in these jobs that supplied the German army with much needed equipment for the war effort. So, it was young people and women in Germany who covered the worker shortage supplemented the small income provided by the government for families.

While women and young people were adapting to life in work, there was another major factor that impacted life on the home front. A big problem that affected Germany was a lack of food, which in turn affected health.

A shortfall in food production and importation meant that Germany was required to increase its agriculture to feed both a vast army, as well as civilians.

The food that was available to civilians was expensive too, with wages often not high enough for families to afford a proper diet. Mortality rates for children rose along with those of adults and elderly citizens, and many people died of malnutrition or diseases related to weakened bodies.

By 1915 the food situation reached critical levels in urban areas. This resulted in resentful feelings towards those who worked in rural areas, with rumours spreading that farmers were stockpiling food for themselves. Food riots spread across the land in response to the food shortage, as basic amenities became more and more scarce.

By 1916 soap, fat, cheese, butter and eggs were unavailable, while coal, shoes and textiles were scarce. With food prices getting higher and higher, the government implemented maximum prices on certain products, including sugar and potatoes. To combat the decrease in availability of food, the German government also established compulsory 'meatless' and 'fatless' days.

The people left on the home front largely relied on a diet of potatoes on bread, but these also became difficult to purchase towards the end of the war. To control the supply and distribution of essential household produce, Germany established a war food office; although its limited power meant that it could not control other organisations that dealt with produce.

There were many laws introduced to make distribution fair, but because so many new agencies were introduced during the First World War, this led to counter-productive decisions that hardly benefitted families.

So what was the impact on the family unit as a whole? Families had to adapt to significant changes during the First World War. Family identity was transforming, with developments from traditional Victorian ideas being challenged due to the changes brought about by the war.

Consciption took many men away from their families, leaving women and young people struggling to afford basic amenities. The absence of men and blockades by the Allied Forces resulted in food and produce shortages, so families struggled to feed themselves and mortality rates increased. It was down to those left behind to fill job openings, to support household income and provide produce for the army and for the home front.

While the attitude towards women didn’t change significantly, the attitude towards young people did. They could no longer rely on parents to provide for them, and as a result many took up jobs to supplement income and to give them a sense of newly found freedom. While youths experienced a largely positive change, women were working on very low wages and being treated as inferior to male labourers.

Family units had to adapt by taking on extra work to feed their households, and making adjustments to make rations go further. The First World War affected how families operated, with the home front seeing significant changes to the way people lived their lives.

*Herwig, H. The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary 1914-1918, Bloomsbury Academic, 1996.

© Centenary Digital Ltd & Author