The UK after The Great War
Why post-war Britain was far from a green and pleasant land for returning soldiers.
The First World War pushed many soldiers to the brink, with many never returning home. The toll of the first fully mechanised conflict on the human body and mind would have been excruciating, but so many made it through to return home.
Upon returning home, troops may have hoped for a land which was worth the years of hell. Unfortunately, the reality was far different.
The initial celebrations of returning home disappeared quickly with the spread of the Spanish Flu. Soldiers returning from France and Belgium helped to spread the disease throughout the UK. men had gone from fighting in the trenches to being struck down with a horrendous illness at home.
By the time the influenza faded, almost 250,000 people had died in the UK. It was a horrendous pandemic, even more so for soldiers who fell ill after spending months and sometimes years in the trenches.
If returning soldiers thought the new decade would bring a change in fortune, they were to be disappointed. Throughout the 1920s, unemployment remained at a steady level. Yet the economic and human cost of the war would become apparent. By the end of the 1920s, the unemployment rates in the UKs major industries was high. 16.5% in coal mining, 13.6% in Cotton textiles, 25.5% in Iron and Steel and over 30% in Shipbuilding. The war effort needed every industry to do its part, but once the guns fell silent it became obvious that the wartime levels of demand would not be seen again.
Certain areas were hit harder than others, with Wales seeing an unemployment rate of nearly 20% but under 6% in the South East of England and London. The vast south Wales coalfield perhaps responsible for this high statistic of unemployment.
The financial impact had, to some extent, a north/ south divide. The midlands and the south saw a boom through the automobile industry. Men returning from the front to this industry would see a boom during the 1930s when so many other industries collapsed.
In the north, the heavy industries of coal mining and ship building were hit hard. Men from the north east and Yorkshire would have been more financially stable in the trenches of northern Europe than in their hometowns. It is not the green and pleasant land they were told they were fighting for.
Many of those who returned from the front would be permanently scarred. Approximately 40,000 soldiers lost limbs and would be forced to reintegrate into civilian society with an all new mindset. For these soldiers, and the thousands of others who returned with psychological disorders, the war didn’t end in 1918. For some, it never would.
The soldiers returning to the UK went through hell, but unfortunately they didn’t return to a country which could be classed as ‘fit for heroes’. Faced with unemployment, injuries and psychological damage, many of the soldiers would struggle to leave the war behind them. The financial implosion of the 1920s and 30s would see thousands of veterans struggle to make ends meet, left behind by a country which they had gone through hell to defend.
The First World War changed the UK forever. The landscape of society and how the rest of the world was viewed by the UK would never be the same again. For many of the soldiers who fought in the war, their life before the trenches is something they would never return to.