Home front during World War I
The home front during World War I covers the domestic, economic, social and political histories of countries involved in that conflict. It covers the mobilization of soldiers and war supplies, but does not include the military history. During the entire war, about 10 million soldiers and seven million civilians died, including many weakened by years of malnutrition; they fell in the worldwide Spanish Flu pandemic, which struck late in 1918, just as the war was ending.
The Allies had much more potential wealth that they could spend on the war. One estimate (using 1913 US dollars), is that the Allies spent $147 billion on the war and the Central Powers only $61 billion. Among the Allies, Britain and its Empire spent $47 billion and the US $27 billion; among the Central Powers, Germany spent $45 billion.
Total war demanded total mobilization of all the nation's resources for a common goal. Manpower had to be channeled into the front lines (all the powers except the United States and Britain had large trained reserves designed for just that). Behind the lines labor power had to be redirected away from less necessary activities that were luxuries during a total war. In particular, vast munitions industries had to be built up to provide shells, guns, warships, uniforms, airplanes, and a hundred other weapons, both old and new. Agriculture had to be mobilized as well, to provide food for both civilians and for soldiers (many of whom had been farmers and needed to be replaced by old men, boys and women) and for horses to move supplies. Transportation in general was a challenge, especially when Britain and Germany each tried to intercept merchant ships headed for the enemy. Finance was a special challenge. Germany financed the Central Powers. Britain financed the Allies until 1916, when it ran out of money and had to borrow from the United States. The US took over the financing of the Allies in 1917 with loans that it insisted be repaid after the war. The victorious Allies looked to defeated Germany in 1919 to pay "reparations" that would cover some of their costs. Above all, it was essential to conduct the mobilization in such a way that the short term confidence of the people was maintained, the long-term power of the political establishment was upheld, and the long-term economic health of the nation was preserved.
For more details on economics see Economic history of World War I.
- 1 Britain
- 2 British Empire
- 3 Belgium
- 4 France
- 5 Russia
- 6 Italy
- 7 United States
- 8 Germany
- 9 Austria-Hungary
- 10 Ottoman Empire
- 11 Balkans
- 12 Asia
- 13 Notes
- 14 Further reading
- 15 See also
At the outbreak of war, patriotic feelings spread throughout the country, and many of the class barriers of Edwardian England faded during the years of combat. However, the Catholics in southern Ireland moved overnight to demands for complete immediate independence after the failed Easter Rebellion of 1916. Northern Ireland remained loyal to the crown.
Economic sacrifices were made, however, in the name of defeating the enemy. In 1915 Liberal politician David Lloyd George took charge of the newly created Ministry of Munitions. He dramatically increased the output of artillery shells—the main weapon actually used in battle. In 1916 he became secretary for war. Prime Minister H. H. Asquith was a disappointment; he formed a coalition government in 1915 but it was also ineffective. Asquith was replaced by Lloyd George in late 1916. He had a strong hand in the managing of every affair, making many decisions himself. Historians credit Lloyd George with providing the driving energy and organisation that won the War.
Although German bombs were falling, morale remained relatively high due in part to the morale-building propaganda churned out by the national newspapers. With a severe shortage of skilled workers, industry redesigned work so that it could be done by unskilled men and women (termed the "dilution of labour") so that war-related industries grew rapidly. Lloyd George cut a deal with the trades unions—they approved the dilution (since it would be temporary) and threw their organizations into the war effort.
Historian Arthur Marwick saw a radical transformation of British society, a deluge that swept away many old attitudes and brought in a more equalitarian society. He also saw the famous literary pessimism of the 1920s as misplaced, for there were major positive long-term consequences of the war. He pointed to new job opportunities and self-consciousness among workers that quickly built up the Labour Party, to the coming of partial woman suffrage, and to an acceleration of social reform and state control of the British economy. He found a decline of deference toward the aristocracy and established authority in general, and a weakening among youth of traditional restraints on individual moral behavior. Marwick concluded that class differentials softened, national cohesion increased, and British society became more equal.
In rapid succession in spring 1918 came a series of military and political crises. The Germans, having moved troops from the Eastern front and retrained them in new tactics, now had more soldiers on the Western Front than the Allies. Germany launched a full scale Spring Offensive (Operation Michael), starting March 21 against the British and French lines, with the hope of victory on the battlefield before the American troops arrived in numbers. The Allied armies fell back 40 miles in confusion, and facing defeat, London realized it needed more troops to fight a mobile war. Lloyd George found a half million soldiers and rushed them to France, asked American President Woodrow Wilson for immediate help, and agreed to the appointment of French General Foch as commander-in-chief on the Western Front so that Allied forces could be coordinated to handle the German offensive.
Despite strong warnings it was a bad idea, the War Cabinet decided to impose conscription on Ireland. The main reason was that labour in Britain demanded it as the price for cutting back on exemptions for certain workers. Labour wanted the principle established that no one was exempt, but it did not demand that the draft actually take place in Ireland. The proposal was enacted but never enforced. The Catholic bishops for the first time entered the fray and called for open resistance to a draft. Many Irish Catholics and nationalists moved into the intransigent Sinn Féin movement. This proved a decisive moment, marking the end of Irish willingness to stay inside the UK.
When on May 7, 1918, a senior army general on active duty, Major-General Sir Frederick Maurice went public with allegations that Lloyd George had lied to Parliament on military matters, a crisis was at hand. The German spring offensive had made unexpected major gains, and a scapegoat was needed. Asquith, the Liberal leader in the House, took up the allegations and attacked Lloyd George (also a Liberal), which further split the Liberal Party. While Asquith's presentation was poorly done, Lloyd George vigorously defended his position, treating the debate as a vote of confidence. He won over the House with a powerful refutation of Maurice's allegations. The main results were to strengthen Lloyd George, weaken Asquith, end public criticism of overall strategy, and strengthen civilian control of the military.
Meanwhile the German offensive stalled. By summer the Americans were sending 10,000 fresh men a day to the Western Front, a more rapid response made possible by leaving their equipment behind and using British and French munitions. The German army had used up its last reserves and was steadily shrinking in number and weakening in resolve. Victory came on November 11, 1918.
The militant suffragette movement was suspended during the war, and at the time people credited the new patriotic roles women played as earning them the vote in 1918. However, British historians no longer emphasize the granting of woman suffrage as a reward for women's participation in war work. Pugh (1974) argues that enfranchising soldiers primarily and women secondarily was decided by senior politicians in 1916. In the absence of major women's groups demanding for equal suffrage, the government's conference recommended limited, age-restricted women's suffrage. The suffragettes had been weakened, Pugh argues, by repeated failures before 1914 and by the disorganizing effects of war mobilization; therefore they quietly accepted these restrictions, which were approved in 1918 by a majority of the War Ministry and each political party in Parliament. More generally, Searle (2004) argues that the British debate was essentially over by the 1890s, and that granting the suffrage in 1918 was mostly a byproduct of giving the vote to male soldiers. Women in Britain finally achieved suffrage on the same terms as men in 1928.
The 620,000 men in service were most notable for combat in the trenches of the Western Front; there were 67,000 war dead and 173,000 wounded. This total does not include the 2,000 deaths and 9,000 injuries in December 1917 when a munitions ship exploded in Halifax.
Volunteering provided enough soldiers at first, but high casualties soon required conscription, which was strongly opposed by Francophones. The Conscription Crisis of 1917 saw the Liberal Party ripped apart, to the advantage of the Conservatives Prime Minister Robert Borden, who led a Unionist coalition to a landslide victory in 1917.
Distrusting the loyalties of Canadians of German ethnicity and, especially, recent immigrants from the Ukraine (who were citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), the government interned thousands of aliens.
The war validated Canada's new world role, in an almost-equal partnership with Britain in the Commonwealth of Nations. Arguing that Canada had become a true nation on the battlefields of Europe, Borden demanded and received a separate seat for Canada at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Canada's military and civilian participation in the First World War strengthened a sense of British-Canadian nationhood among the Anglophones (English speakers). The Francophones (French speakers) supported the war at first, but pulled back and stood aloof after 1915 because of language disputes at home. Heroic memories centered around the "Canada's Hundred Days" battles of 1917, especially the Battle of Vimy Ridge where 3,600 died.
Prime Minister William Hughes led Australia into the war to support the mother country and to improve Australia's strategic advantages, such as building up new industries, gaining control of the German colony of New Guinea, and securing high prices for her export products. He expanded the government's role in the economy, while dealing with intense debates over the issue of conscription.
From a population of five million, 417,000 men enlisted; 330,000 went overseas to fight during the First World War. They were all volunteers, since the political battle for compulsory conscription failed. Some 58,000 died and 156,000 were wounded. Fisher argues that the government aggressively promoted economic, industrial, and social modernization in the war years. However, he says it came through exclusion and repression. He says the war turned a peaceful nation into "one that was violent, aggressive, angst- and conflict-ridden, torn apart by invisible front lines of sectarian division, ethnic conflict and socio-economic and political upheaval." The nation was fearful of enemy aliens—especially Germans, regardless of how closely they identified with Australia. The government interred 2,900 German-born men (40% of the total) and deported 700 of them after the war. Irish nationalists and labor radicals were under suspicion as well. Racist hostility was high toward nonwhites, including Pacific Islanders, Chinese and Aborigines. The result, Fischer says, was a strengthening of conformity to imperial/British loyalties and an explicit preference for immigrants from the British Isles.
The major military event involved sending 40,000 ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand) soldiers in 1915 to seize the Gallipoli peninsula near Constantinople to open an Allied route to Russia and weaken the Ottoman Empire. The campaign was a total failure militarily and 8,100 Australians died. However the memory was all-important, for it transformed the Australian mind and became an iconic element of the Australian identity and the founding moment of nationhood.
Internment of German aliens
The global nature of the war meant that many functions that were previously vested in the individual Australian state governments had to be placed under the control of the Commonwealth government. Additionally the exigencies of the war meant that the government required the power to enact certain laws that under the Constitution it would not normally be able to do. In order to enable this to occur, the War Precautions Act 1914 was introduced in October 1914, providing the Commonwealth government with wide ranging powers for a period of up to six months after the duration of the war.
The main provisions of the Act were focused upon allowing the Commonwealth to enact legislation that was required for the smooth prosecution of the war. The main areas in which legislation was enacted under the War Precautions Act were: the prevention of trade with hostile nations, the creation of loans to raise money for the war effort, the introduction of a national taxation scheme, the fixing of the prices of certain goods, the internment of people considered a danger to the war effort, the compulsory purchase of strategic goods, and the censorship of the media.
At the outbreak of the war there were about 35,000 people who had been born in either Germany or Austria-Hungary living in Australia. They had weak ties with Germany (and almost none to Austria) and many had enlisted in the Australian war effort. Nevertheless fears ran high and internment camps were set up where those suspected of unpatriotic acts were sent. In total 4,500 people were interned under the provisions of the War Precautions Act, of which 700 were naturalised Australians and 70 Australian born. Following the end of the war, 6,150 were deported.
In 1914 the Australian economy was small but very nearly the most propserous in the world per capita; it depended on the export of wool and mutton. London provided assurances that it would underwrite a large amount of the war risk insurance for shipping in order to allow trade amongst the Commonwealth nations to continue. London imposed controls so that no exports would wind up in German hands. The British government protected prices by buying Australian products, even though the shortage of shipping meant that there was no chance that they would ever receive them.
On the whole, Australian commerce was expanded due to the war, although the cost of the war was quite considerable and the Australian government had to borrow considerably from overseas to fund the war effort. In terms of value, Australian exports rose almost 45 per cent, while the number of Australians employed in manufacturing industries increased over 11 per cent. Iron mining and steel manufacture grew enormously. Inflation became a factor as consumer prices went up,[further explanation needed] while the cost of exports was deliberately kept lower than market value in an effort to prevent further inflationary pressures worldwide. As a result the cost of living for many average Australians was increased.
The trade union movement, already powerful, grew rapidly, although the movement was split on the political question of conscription. It expelled the politicians, such as Hughes, who favoured conscription (which was never passed into law). The government sought to stabilize wages, much to the anger of unionists. the average weekly wage during the war was increased by between 8 and 12 per cent, it was not enough to keep up with inflation. Angry workers launched a wave of strikes against both the wage freeze and the conscription proposal. Nevertheless, the result was very disruptive and it has been estimated that between 1914 and 1918 there were 1,945 industrial disputes, resulting in 8,533,061 working days being lost and a £4,785,607 defict in wages.
Overall, the war had a significantly negative impact on the Australia economy. Real aggregate Gross Domestic Product (GDP) declined by 9.5 percent over the period 1914 to 1920, while the mobilization of personnel resulted in a six percent decline in civilian employment. Meanwhile, although population growth continued during the war years, it was only half that of the prewar rate. Per capita incomes also declined sharply, failing by 16 percent.
The country remained an enthusiastic supporter of the Empire, enlisting 124,211 men and sending 100,444 to fight in World War I (see New Zealand Expeditionary Force). Over 18,000 died in service. Conscription was introduced in mid 1916 and by the end of the war near 1 in four members of the NZEF was a conscript.  As in Australia, involvement in the Gallipoli campaign became an iconic touchstone in New Zealand memory of the war and was commonly connected to imaginings of collective identity.
The war divided the labour movement with numerous elements taking up roles in the war effort while others alledged the war was an imperial venture against the interests of the working class. Labour MPs frequently acted as critics of government policy during the war and opposition to conscription saw the modern Labour Party formed in 1916. Maori tribes that had been close to the government sent their young men to volunteer. The mobilisation of women for war work/service was relatively slight compared to more industrialised countries. Though some 640 women served as nurses with 500 going overseas.
New Zealand forces captured Western Samoa from Germany in the early stages of the war, and New Zealand administered the country until Samoan Independence in 1962. However many Samoans greatly resented the administration, and blamed inflation and the catastrophic 1918 flu epidemic on New Zealand rule.
South Africa had a military role in the war, fighting the Germans in East Africa and on the Western Front. Public opinion in South Africa split along racial and ethnic lines. The British elements strongly supported the war and comprised the great majority of the 146,000 white soldiers. Nasson says, "for many enthusiastic English-speaking Union recruits, going to war was anticipated as an exciting adventure, egged on by the itch of making a manly mark upon a heroic cause." Likewise the Indian element (led by Mahatma Gandhi), generally supported the war effort. Afrikaners were split, with some like Prime Minister Louis Botha and General Jan Smuts taking a prominent leadership role in the British war effort. Their pro-British position was rejected by many rural Afrikaners who favoured Germany and who launched the Maritz Rebellion, a small-scale open revolt against the government. The trade union movement was divided. Many urban blacks supported the war, expecting it would raise their status in society. Others said it was not relevant to the struggle for their rights. The Coloured element was generally supportive and many served in a Coloured Corps in East Africa and France, also hoping to better their lot after the war. Those blacks and Coloureds who supported the war were embittered when the postwar era saw no easing of white domination and restrictive conditions.
The British controlled India (including modern Pakistan and Bangladesh) either directly through the British Raj or indirectly through local princes. The colonial government of India supported the war enthusiastically, and enlarged the British Indian army by a factor of 500% to 1.4 million men. It sent 550,000 overseas, with 200,000 going as labourers to the Western Front and the rest to the Middle East theatre. Only a few hundred were allowed to become officers, but there were some 100,000 casualties. The main fighting of the latter group was in Iraq, where large numbers were killed and captured in the initial stages of the Mesopotamian campaign, most infamously during the Siege of Kut. The Indian contingent was entirely funded by the Indian taxpayers (who had no vote and no voice in the matter).
Although Germany and the Ottoman Empire tried to incite anti-British subversion with the help of Indian freedom fighters, such as Rash Bihari Bose or Bagha Jatin, they had virtually no success, apart from a localized 1915 Singapore Mutiny, which was a part of the Gadar conspiracy. The small Indian industrial base expanded dramatically to provide most of the supplies and munitions for the Middle East theatre. Indian nationalists became well organized for the first time during the war, and were stunned when they received little in the way of self-government in the aftermath of victory.
In 1918, India experienced an influenza epidemic and severe food shortages.
Nearly all of Belgium was occupied by the Germans, but the government and army escaped and fought the war on a narrow slice of the Western Front. The German invaders treated any resistance—such as sabotaging rail lines—as illegal and immoral, and shot the offenders and burned buildings in retaliation. The German army executed over 6,500 French and Belgian civilians between August and November 1914, usually in near-random large-scale shootings of civilians ordered by junior German officers. The German Army destroyed 15,000-20,000 buildings—most famously the university library at Louvain—and generated a refugee wave of over a million people. Over half the German regiments in Belgium were involved in major incidents. Thousands of workers were shipped to Germany to work in factories. British propaganda dramatizing the Rape of Belgium attracted much attention in the US, while Berlin said it was legal and necessary because of the threat of "franc-tireurs" (guerrillas) like those in France in 1870. The British and French magnified the reports and disseminated them at home and in the US, where they played a major role in dissolving support for Germany.
The Germans left Belgium stripped and barren. They shipped machinery to Germany while destroying factories. After the atrocities of the first few weeks, German civil servants took control and were generally correct, albeit strict and severe. There was no violent resistance movement, but there was a large-scale spontaneous passive resistance of a refusal to work for the benefit of German victory. Belgium was heavily industrialized; while farms operated and small shops stayed open, most large establishments shut down or drastically reduced their output. The faculty closed the universities; publishers shut down most newspapers. Most Belgians "turned the four war years into a long and extremely dull vacation, says Kiossmann.
Neutrals led by the United States set up the Commission for Relief in Belgium, headed by American engineer Herbert Hoover. It shipped in large quantities of food and medical supplies, which it tried to reserve for civilians and keep out of the hands of the Germans. Many businesses collaborated with the Germans, and some women cohabitated with them. They were treated roughly in a wave of popular violence in November and December 1918. The government set up judicial proceedings to punish the collaborators. In 1919 the king organized a new ministry and introduced universal male suffrage. The Socialists—mostly poor workers—benefited more than the more middle class Catholics and Liberals,
Rubber had long been the main export; production levels held up but its importance fell from 77% of exports (by value) to only 15%. New resources were opened, especially copper mining in Katanga province. The British-owned Union Miniere company dominated the copper industry; it used a direct rail line to the sea at Beira. The war caused a heavy demand for copper, production soared from 997 tons in 1911 to 27,000 tons in 1917, then fell off to 19,000 tons in 1920. Smelters operated at Lubumbashi; before the war copper was sold to Germany; the British purchased all the wartime output, with the revenues going to the Belgian government in exile. Diamond and gold mining expanded during the war. The British firm of Lever Bros. greatly expanded the palm oil business during the war, and there was an increased output of cocoa, rice and cotton. New rail and steamship lines opened to handle the expanded export traffic.
Many French intellectuals welcomed the war to avenge the humiliation of defeat and loss of territory to Germany following the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. Only one major figure, novelist Romain Roland retained his pacifist internationalist values; he went to Switzerland. After Socialist leader Jean Jaurès, a pacifist, was assassinated at the start of the war, the French socialist movement abandoned its antimilitarist positions and joined the national war effort. Prime Minister Rene Viviani called for unity—for a "Union sacrée" ("Sacred Union"); France had few dissenters. However, war-weariness was a major factor by 1917, even reaching the army, as soldiers were reluctant to attack—many threatened to mutiny—saying it was best to wait for the arrival of millions of Americans. The soldiers were protesting not just the futility of frontal assaults in the face of German machine guns but also degraded conditions at the front lines and at home, especially infrequent leaves, poor food, the use of African and Asian colonials on the home front, and concerns about the welfare of their wives and children.
The economy was hurt by the German invasion of major industrial areas in the northeast. While the occupied area in 1913 contained only 14% of France's industrial workers, it produced 58% of the steel, and 40% of the coal. Considerable relief came with the influx of American food, money and raw materials in 1917.
On the other hand the economy was helped by American loans which were used to purchase food and manufactured goods that allowed a decent standard of living. The arrival of over a million American soldiers in 1918 brought heavy spending on food and construction materials. Labor shortages were in part alleviated by the use of volunteer workers from the colonies.
Georges Clemenceau became prime minister in November 1917, a time of defeatism and acrimony. Italy was on the defensive, Russia had surrendered. Civilians were angry, as rations fell short and the threat of German air raids grew. Clemenceau realized his first priority was to restore civilian morale. He arrested Joseph Caillaux, a former French prime minister, for openly advocating peace negotiations. He won all-party support to fight to victory calling for "la guerre jusqu'au bout" (war until the end).
Czarist Russia was being torn apart in 1914 and was not prepared to fight a modern war. The industrial sector was small, finances were poor, the rural areas could barely feed themselves. Repeated military failures and bureaucratic ineptitude soon turned large segments of the population against the government. Control of the Baltic Sea by the German fleet, and of the Black Sea by combined German and Ottoman forces prevented Russia from importing supplies or exporting goods. By the middle of 1915 the impact of the war was demoralizing. Food and fuel supplies grew scarce, war casualties kept climbing and inflation was mounting. Strikes increased among low-paid factory workers, and the peasants, who wanted land reforms, were restless. Meanwhile, elite distrust of the regime was deepened when a semiliterate mystic, Grigory Rasputin, gained enormous influence over the Czar. Major strikes broke out early in 1917 and the army sided with the strikers in the February Revolution. The czar abdicated. The liberal reformer Alexander Kerensky came to power in July, but in the October Revolution Lenin and the Bolsheviks took control. In early 1918 they signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk that made Germany dominant in Eastern Europe, while Russia plunged into years of civil war.
While the central bureaucracy was overwhelmed and under-led, Fallows shows that localities sprang into action motivated by patriotism, pragmatism, economic self-interest, and partisan politics. Food distribution was the main role of the largest network, called the "Union of Zemstvos." It also set up hospitals and refugee stations.
Italy decided not to honor its Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria, and remained neutral. Public opinion in Italy was sharply divided, with Catholics and socialists calling for peace. However nationalists saw their opportunity to gain their "irredenta" – that is, the border regions that were controlled by Austria. The nationalists won out, and in April 1915, the Italian government secretly agreed to the London Pact in which Britain and France promised that if Italy would declare war on Austria, it would receive its territorial rewards. The Italian army of 875,000 men was poorly led and lacked heavy artillery and machine guns. The industrial base was too small to provide adequate amounts of modern equipment, and the old-fashioned rural base did not produce much of a food surplus. The war stalemated with a dozen indecisive battles on a very narrow front along the Isonzo River, where the Austrians held the high ground. In 1916, Italy declared war on Germany, which provided significant aid to the Austrians. Some 650,000 Italian soldiers died and 950,000 were wounded, while the economy required large-scale Allied funding to survive.
Before the war the government had ignored labor issues, but now it had to intervene to mobilize war production. With the main working-class Socialist party reluctant to support the war effort, strikes were frequent and cooperation was minimal, especially in the Socialist strongholds of Piedmont and Lombardy. The government imposed high wage scales, as well as collective bargaining and insurance schemes. Many large firms expanded dramatically. For example, the workforce at the Ansaldo munitions company grew from 6,000 to 110,000 workers as it manufactured 10,900 artillery pieces, 3,800 warplanes, 95 warships and 10 million artillery shells. At Fiat the workforce grew from 4,000 to 40,000. Inflation doubled the cost of living. Industrial wages kept pace but not wages for farm workers. Discontent was high in rural areas since so many men were taken for service, industrial jobs were unavailable, wages grew slowly and inflation was just as bad.
Italy blocked serious peace negotiations, staying in the war primarily to gain new territory. The Treaty of St. Germain awarded the victorious Italian nation the Southern half of the County of Tyrol, Trieste, Istria, and the city of Zadar. Italy did not receive other territories promised by the Pact of London, so this victory was considered "mutilated". In 1922 Italy formally annexed the Dodecanese (Possedimenti Italiani dell'Egeo), that she had occupied during the previous war with Turkey.
President Woodrow Wilson took full control of foreign policy, declaring neutrality but warning Germany that the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare against American ships would mean war. Wilson's mediation efforts failed; likewise the peace efforts sponsored by industrialist Henry Ford went nowhere. Germany decided to take the risk and try to win by cutting off Britain; the US declared war in April 1917. America had the largest industrial, financial and agricultural base of any of the great powers, but it took 12–18 months to fully reorient it to the war effort. American money, food and munitions flowed freely to Europe from spring 1917, but troops arrived slowly. The US Army in 1917 was small and poorly equipped.
The draft began in spring 1917 but volunteers were also accepted. Four million men and thousands of women joined the services for the duration. By summer 1918 American soldiers under General John J. Pershing arrived in France at the rate of 10,000 a day, while Germany was unable to replace its losses. The result was an Allied victory in November 1918.
Propaganda campaigns directed by the government shaped the public mood toward patriotism and voluntary purchases of war bonds. The Committee on Public Information (CPI) controlled war information and provide pro-war propaganda, with the assistance of the private American Protective League and tens of thousands of local speakers. The Sedition Act of 1918 criminalized any expression of opinion that used "disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language" about the US government, flag or armed forces. The most prominent opponents of the war were Wobblies and Socialists, many of whom were convicted of deliberately impeding the war effort and were sentenced to prison, including the Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs.
Woodrow Wilson played the central role in defining the Allied war aims in 1917–1918 (although the US never officially joined the Allies.) He demanded Germany depose the Kaiser and accept his terms, the Fourteen Points. Wilson dominated the 1919 Paris Peace Conference but Germany was treated harshly by the Allies in the Treaty of Versailles (1919) as Wilson put all his hopes in the new League of Nations. Wilson refused to compromise with Senate Republicans over the issue of Congressional power to declare war, and the Senate rejected the Treaty and the League.
By 1915 the British naval blockade had cut-off food imports and conditions deteriorated rapidly on the home front, with severe food shortages reported in all urban areas. The causes included the transfer of so many farmers and food workers into the military, combined with the overburdened railroad system, a shortage of coal, and the British blockade that cut off imports from abroad. The winter of 1916–1917 was known as the "turnip winter," because that vegetable, which was usually fed to livestock, was used by people as a substitute for potatoes and meat, which were increasingly scarce. Thousands of soup kitchens were opened to feed the hungry people, who grumbled that the farmers were keeping the food for themselves. Even the army had to cut the rations for soldiers. Compared to peacetime, about 474,000 additional civilians died, chiefly because malnutrition had weakened the body. Morale of both civilians and soldiers continued to sink, but using the slogan of "sharing scarcity", the German bureaucracy ran an efficient rationing system nevertheless.
The end of October 1918 saw the outbreak of the German Revolution of 1918–19 as units of the German Navy refused to set sail for a last, large-scale operation in a war which they saw as good as lost. By 3 November, the revolt had spread to other cities and states of the country, in many of which workers' and soldiers' councils were established. Meanwhile, Hindenburg and the senior commanders had lost confidence in the Kaiser and his government.
The Kaiser and all German ruling princes abdicated. On 9 November 1918, the Social Democrat Philipp Scheidemann proclaimed a Republic. On 11 November, the armistice ended the war with a total defeat for Germany and her occupation by the Allies.
The Ottoman Empire had long been the "sick man of Europe" and by 1914 it had been driven out of nearly all of Europe, and had lost its influence in North Africa. It still controlled 23 million people, of whom 17 million were in modern-day Turkey, three million in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, and 2.5 million in Iraq. Another 5.5 million people were under nominal Ottoman rule in the Arabian peninsula.
A Turkish revival movement, the Young Turks took control of the government in 1913; they mobilized the country's society for war, employing numerous political and economic reforms. The Committee of Union and Progress, through its Committee of National Defense, fostered pan-Turkish nationalism based in Anatolia. The Young Turks created new organizations, such as the Ottoman Red Crescent Society, the Ottoman Navy League, and the Committee of National Defense, to extend their political influence to the middle class, to mobilize support for the war effort and to construct a Turkish identity. When the war broke out the sultan, in his capacity, as caliph, issued a jihad, calling all Muslims in Egypt, India and other Allied colonies to revolt against their Christian rulers. Very few listened. Meanwhile many Arabs turned against the Turkish rulers of the Empire and collaborated with the British.
Reacting to highly exaggerated fears that the Armenians were a tool of the Russians, the Young Turks forcibly evacuated the Armenians from eastern Anatolia, regardless of the 600,000 or more lives lost in the Armenian Genocide. The Young Turks lost control as the war ended and fled into exile.
Despite its small size and population of 4.6 million, Serbia had the most effective manpower mobilization of the war, and had a highly professional officer corps. It called 350,000 men to arms, of whom 185,000 were in combat units. Nevertheless, the casualties and expenditure of munitions in the Balkan Wars left Serbia depleted and dependent on France for supplies. Austria invaded twice in 1914 and was turned back after both armies suffered very heavy losses. Many captured Austrian soldiers were Slavic and joined the Serbian cause. The year 1915 was peaceful in the sense there was no military action, but food supplies were dangerously low and a series of deadly epidemics hit, especially typhus. The death toll from epidemics was about 100,000 civilians, 35,000 soldiers, and 30,000 prisoners of war.
In late 1915, however, German generals were given control and invaded Serbia with Austrian and Bulgarian forces. The Serbian army hastily retreated west but only 70,000 made it through, and Serbia became an occupied land. Disease was rampant, but the Austrians were pragmatic and paid well for food supplies, so conditions were not harsh. Instead Austria tried to depoliticize Serbia, to minimize violence, and to integrate the country into the Empire. Nevertheless Serbian nationalism remained defiant and many young men slipped out to help rebuild the Serbian army in exile.
The war ended the very heavy death toll, which saw 615,000 of Serbia's 707,000 soldiers killed, along with 600,000 civilian dead. The death toll in Montenegro was also high. Serbia achieved its political goals by forming the new Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (later Yugoslavia) in 1918. It proved more difficult to create the new-model "Yugoslav" as an exemplar of a united nation containing diverse ethnicities, languages and religions. For example Montenegro was included but, fearful of losing its own cultural traditions, there was a revolt there that the Serbian army crushed.
Bulgaria, a poor rural nation of 4.5 million people sought to acquire Macedonia, but when it tried it was defeated in 1913 in the Second Balkan War. In the Great War Bulgaria at first stayed neutral. However its leaders still hoped to acquire Macedonia, which was controlled by an Ally, Serbia. In 1915, joining the Central Powers seemed the best route. It mobilized a very large army of 800,000 men, using equipment supplied by Germany. The Bulgarian-German-Austrian invasion of Serbia in 1915 was a quick victory, but by the end of that year Bulgaria was also fighting the British and French—as well as the Romanians in 1916 and the Greeks in 1917. Bulgaria was ill-prepared for a long war; the absence of so many soldiers sharply reduced agricultural output. Much of its best food was smuggled out to feed lucrative black markets elsewhere. By 1918 the soldiers were not only short of basic equipment like boots, but they were being fed mostly corn bread with a little meat. Germany was increasingly in control, and Bulgarian relations with its ally the Ottoman Empire soured. The Allied offensive in September 1918 destroyed the remnants of Bulgarian military power and civilian morale. Troops mutinied and peasants revolted, demanding peace. By month's end Bulgaria signed an armistice, giving up its conquests and its military hardware. The Czar abdicated and Bulgaria's war was over. The peace treaty in 1919 stripped Bulgaria of its conquests, reduced its army to 20,000 men, and demanded reparations of £100 million.
Greece had been exhausted by the Balkan wars and sought to remain neutral, but its strategic position as the gateway to the Balkans made that impossible. In the National Schism, King Constantine I, a traditionalist who had German ties, battled with his modernizing liberal Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos, who was sympathetic to the Allies. Venizélos with Allied support, set up the short-lived Greek "state" of Salonika, from October 1916 to June 1917. An Allied blockade forced the king to abdicate in June 1917. Venizélos was now in full control and Greece sided with the Allies and declared war. Greece served as a staging base for large numbers of French, Serbian and other Allied units. By war's end the Greek army numbered 300,000 and had about 5,000 casualties. The schism between modernizers and traditionalists did not heal and for decades was the polarizing factor in Greek politics.
Japan's military seized German possessions in the Pacific and East Asia. but there was no large-scale mobilization of the economy. Foreign minister Kato Takaaki and Prime Minister Okuma Shigenobu wanted to use the opportunity to expand Japanese influence in China. They enlisted Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925), then in exile in Japan, but they had little success. The Imperial Navy, a nearly autonomous bureaucratic institution, made its own decision to undertake expansion in the Pacific. It captured Germany's Micronesian territories north of the equator, and ruled the islands until 1921. The operation gave the navy a rationale for enlarging its budget to double the army budget and expanding the fleet. The Navy thus gained significant political influence over national and international affairs. Inflation caused rice prices to quadruple, leading to small-scale riots all across the country in 1918. The government made thousands of arrests and prevented the newspapers from reporting the riots. Some 250,000 people died in the Spanish flu epidemic in late 1918. The death rate was much lower than other major countries because some immunity had developed from a mild outbreak earlier; public health officials successfully warned people to avoid contact; and the use of inoculation, herbals, masks, and gargling.
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