World War I

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This feature commemorates the outbreak of the First World War. This major historical event became known as  The Great War. The main belligerent European countries involved in the War were imperial powers with large colonial territories in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. The First World War was the first war fought along modern industrial lines. What marked its difference from previous wars, in Europe, is the scale and brutality of casualties inflicted on both sides. Between July 1914, when the war began, and November 1918, when it was concluded, nine million soldiers were killed and twenty-one million wounded.

It was a war in which the technology of the industrial revolution was harnessed to the demands of the battlefield. The development of railways and steamships meant that large armies could be transported over long distance within days. Scientific advances in the chemical industry and the development of electricity rendered war firepower far more deadly than before, resulting in casualties on a scale never experienced before. The First World War also saw the introduction of the use of aircraft which made possible mass bombardments of civilians. This was the first time chemical weapons were introduced onto the battlefield. The War resulted in one of the first genocides of the twentieth century.

The social and political consequences of the War were far reaching.  When the War began most of the world’s governments were ruled by imperial monarchies such as Tsarist Russia, Imperial Germany and the Austria-Hungarian Empire. By the end of the War, revolutions in Germany, Austria and Russia ended the era of absolutist monarchy as workers and soldiers rebelled against the suffering and deprivation imposed by the War.

The First World War had a huge impact on the position of women in society.  In many countries the entire adult male population was involved in fighting. This created a huge shortage of labour which meant that the output from different sectors of the economy was not at its maximum capacity. The production of armaments and equipment needed by soldiers took priority over normal industrial production. Women stepped into the gap left by men in the spheres of transport, industry, policing and most war industries. They operated the munitions factories responsible for feeding the war machine. Women became a visible public presence, not just as wives and mothers, but as economic and social actors in their own right. Many also volunteered for medical service at the front. Before the war women worked primarily in domestic service, the textile industry and teaching. Traditionally, these were regarded as female occupations. With men gone to war, women filled their positions in engineering, shipbuilding, farming and commerce. An important consequence of the War was the granting of the vote to women. Before the war the Suffragette Movement in Great Britain had been waging a militant campaign in support of granting the vote to women. In June 1917, the House of Commons approved the women’s suffrage clause by adopting the Representation of the People’s Bill.

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Last updated : 24-Oct-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 10-Dec-2013