World History 2 184 - 11.4.3 The Civilian Response

While many civilians fully supported the war effort, others voiced opposition to and criticism of the war itself and the reasons behind it. This disapproval became stronger as the war and the shortages went on and morale on the home front suffered.

In Germany, for instance, soldiers were prioritized in the food supply chain, so while they might not enjoy the food they were given, there was usually enough of it even if many civilians found it very difficult to find food. This was especially true for the elderly and those who were not contributing to the war effort through their work. The British blockade of Germany, which ran from 1914 until the end of the war, only compounded the problem. Bread rationing began in Germany in 1915. The winter of 1916–1917 was particularly severe, and much of the potato crop was lost, leaving many tens of thousands of people with nothing but turnips to eat. Food shortages also prompted food riots from 1915 on in Germany.

Food shortages also occurred in Austria-Hungary, which did not have as intricate an infrastructure as Germany and therefore had fewer options for transporting food. It too was focused on making sure soldiers were supplied at the expense of the civilian population. As in many combatant countries, the disruptions to their food supply caused some civilians to begin questioning the government’s job in fighting the war and generally hurt morale at home.

Civilian discontent also rose as more young men were needed for the armies. The war dragged on, and the early enthusiasm evidenced by young recruits in 1914 disappeared. Some recruits did not have confidence that the national armies would be able to win battles or that it was worth risking their lives in service. Other young men were conscientious objectors who for religious and philosophical reasons did not believe in fighting wars and therefore did not wish to serve. Some would-be soldiers in the empires increasingly questioned the value of fighting for imperial glory. Canada experienced a conscription crisis in 1917 when it had to resort to a draft to fulfill Britain’s imperial demand for troops. The military was called to quell a protest in Quebec City and fired on the protesters, killing several.

The use of censorship became a common tool to manage civilian discontent by limiting the information distributed about the war effort. Newspapers presented only vague descriptions of battles and losses, and government-sponsored propaganda showed civilians pro-war posters and commentary. Censorship efforts began in all combatant nations in 1914 and expanded to the United States when it entered in the war in 1917. The U.S. government created the Committee on Public Information to put out pro-war propaganda via public speeches and posters that were remarkably effective. Most posters depicted the German troops as bloodthirsty monsters who would cross the Atlantic to attack the United States if they were not stopped.

Beyond the Book

Propaganda Posters

Propaganda came into wide use in all the combatant nations during World War I. Here are two posters from the United States that showcase the all-encompassing nature of these propaganda campaigns.

The following lithographed poster was part of the United War Work Campaign conducted in association with the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) (Figure 11.17). Note how it shows a variety of attire for women, conveying that women could fill many different roles to support the war. Its title also encourages women to realize that female workers, “our second line of defense,” were needed in the same numbers as male soldiers for the war effort.

The poster reads “For Every Fighter, A Woman Worker, YWCA, Back our Second Line of Defense, United War Work Campaign.” The poster shows women marching. Some women wear military style uniforms and other wear work clothes. Several women carry tools.
Figure 11.17 This 1918 propaganda poster was aimed at American women during World War I. (credit: modification of work “For every fighter a woman worker Y.W.C.A. : Back our second line of defense” by Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/Library of Congress)

The following lithographed poster was put out by the U.S. Food Administration in 1917 (Figure 11.18). It gives specific advice to those at home for helping make sure there is enough food for all the soldiers, such as by eating less wheat and meat items and not wasting anything.

The poster reads “Food, 1-buy it with thought, 2- cook it with care, 3-use less wheat & meat, 4-buy local foods, 5-serve just enough, 6-use what is left, don’t waste it, US Food Administration.”
Figure 11.18 This U.S. government propaganda poster was meant for the general public during World War I. (credit: modification of work “Food—don’t waste it” by Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)
  • What are these posters encouraging? How could civilians show support for the war?
  • Do the posters offer a realistic assessment of the war? Why or why not?

Link to Learning

See more WWI posters presented by the Library of Congress. Which one do you think is most effective at communicating its message?

The U.S. government’s effort to squash criticism of the war began in 1917 with the Espionage Act. It set limits on what could be mailed, banning any type of anti-war newspaper or pamphlet. In 1918, Congress passed the Sedition Act. This forbade “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, and abusive” language about the decision to enter the war, the draft, the flag, and armed forces’ uniforms. It was not about what might be true, but about what could be seen as disloyal. Anti-war speech was considered disloyal and therefore seditious. People were unable to openly question why the United States was in the war or speak out against it without risking imprisonment or hefty fines. Today we see the Sedition Act as a violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which promises protections for free speech. Despite this, the Supreme Court upheld the act, and approximately two thousand people were prosecuted under it. Perhaps the best-known prosecution targeted the Socialist Party’s presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs. Debs was sentenced to ten years (and served more than three) for comments he made against the war, such as questioning why working-class men had to lose their lives in a war they had no voice in declaring.

While Debs was imprisoned, others such as Russian immigrants and those who supported socialist causes were viewed as disloyal and targeted for deportation by the U.S. government. Emma Goldman, a self-avowed anarchist, had come to the United States from Lithuania as a teenager. She had grown interested in radical politics and by the time of the war was speaking out against the draft. Along with more than two hundred others, she was deported to Russia in 1919 under wartime legislation in the United States.

Questioning the war could certainly take other forms than direct political speech. The poets Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, and William Butler Yeats published work that put the inhumanity and suffering of the war on full display. No heroic charges were celebrated in their stanzas. Visual art such as the work of German artist Käthe Kollwitz conveyed the misery of the war. Kollwitz lost her son in the fighting and explored the experience of mourning and suffering in her works. These personal depictions of the horror of the war came clearly across to their audiences and helped fuel criticism of the war.

Due to the use of aircraft in the war, civilians in Europe also had the experience of being displaced from their own cities. The German military utilized zeppelins as early as 1915 to fly to London and bomb the city. Later in the war, they used Gotha bombers to attack the British capital. Hundreds of civilians were killed and thousands injured through this bombing campaign. Those who survived the destruction of their homes became refugees in their own country. The psychological impact of this bombing was immense. For the first time, civilians were at risk in a country where no ground fighting was happening. The role of sheer chance in determining whether a street was hit by a bomb made the danger seem much greater than it was.

Refugees emerged all over Europe. By the end of 1914, more than three million people in France and Belgium alone had left their homes. While many were eventually able to return, the problem of housing millions of displaced people continued throughout the war. On the eastern front, Jewish citizens fled their homes by the tens of thousands, and many found themselves further east in Russia than had previously been allowed due to anti-Semitic laws. Refugees often fled with very little, which made their relocations especially painful.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax