The Lives of British Mothers During
The Two World Wars

          When people study or think of past wars, images and stories of soldiers or battlefields are usually the first subjects that come to mind.  The stories of many other people directly or indirectly affected by these wars are often overlooked and not given as much credit as they should be.  One such group which has not been recognized until recently for their important participation during the wars is mothers in the United Kingdom who lived during World War I and World War II.  British mothers who lived through these wars dealt with concerns that were typical of wars, such as rising prices of goods and mobilization.  But some of them also confronted problems that were more specific to the particular war they lived through, such as an increase in the concern of rape during World War I and the evacuation of children during World War II.

           Civilians who lived in the United Kingdom during World War I experienced food shortages. Because of the war, the economy was disrupted, which resulted in rising prices, especially of imported foods such as meat and sugar.  Rationing, which was introduced in 1918, reduced the weekly consumption of sugar and meat.  In 1917, the Government had to subsidize and stabilize the price of bread, which was still the staple food of the working class.  By 1918, when the war ended, “for the average unskilled worker’s family the cost of living rose by 81 per cent” from 1914 when the war began (Condell and Liddiard 16).  With husbands and sons off to war, mothers had an even harder time adequately feeding their children, especially those who belonged to the working class.  It became increasingly difficult to feed the children as prices for basic foods rose and because there were shortages.

            Some wives and daughters worked at their husbands or sons' job when they went off to the war, which eased the burden of worrying about how to feed the household.  This occurred mostly in the working class since the financial worries of women from the middle and upper classes were not as great.  Many of these women had been working alongside their husbands prior to the war, but they were rarely given sole control.  Women were thought to be incapable of performing the tasks jobs required.  But with men at war, there were no other replacements, and employers reluctantly allowed their workers’ wives or daughters to fill the vacant job.  Though they were paid less than their male counterparts, the wage helped to support the family.  In addition to ensuring an income in the husband or father’s absence, the woman was also able to secure the job for the man when he returned from the war (Condell and Liddiard 10).

            Learning from World War I, the government implemented a systematic rationing program during World War II.  Similarly to mothers during World War I, those living during World War II also experienced an increase in prices of many items including food, clothes, and gasoline.  Once again, items that were imported, such as imported meats, sugar, tea, and coffee, were among the first items to be rationed in case the Germans initiated a submarine blockade.  Rationing proved to be extremely popular because everyone got a fair share.  Women from the middle and upper classes did not get any more than those from the working class, unless their family was larger.  In order to receive rations, mothers had to do a considerable amount of paper work.  This was often frustrating and time-consuming for mothers, especially for large families, but it was a
necessary task to ensure her children would be fed and clothed (Summerfield 105-106).

            Because everything was so scarce, mothers had to come up with creative ways to save on supplies.  It was during this time period that the phrases “make-do and mend,” and in the USA, “use it up, wear it out, or go without,” became popular.  The phrase "make-do and mend" was even seen on posters, urging women, particularly mothers, to reuse any pieces of clothing if possible.  Some women even got together to discuss and give each other advice on how to make the most of their limited resources.  As a young mother said, “I remember one Christmas time we made the children quite a lot of toys out of knitting wool – most of my youngest child’s toys were knitted clowns, policemen and soldiers that the ladies of the village had knitted” (qtd. in Caddick-Adams 10).  These get-togethers allowed the participating mothers to use their scarce resources efficiently, and they also provided the mothers with a sense of community while their husbands were away at the war.

            Another similarity between the two World Wars was mobilization.  No other nations during World War I mobilized their country to the extent that Britain had.  As the government conscripted men to fight in the war, it also mobilized women to aid in the war efforts.  Throughout the war, Britain’s government encouraged women’s patriotic participation in war work, but it also “felt compelled to safeguard motherhood as anxiety about declining birthrates grew as the war’s death tolls mounted” (Grayzel 119).  On July 17, 1915, Mrs. Pankhurst led the Women’s Right To Serve March, which was financed by the newly formed Ministry of Munitions, through London to persuade employers and trade unions that women’s industrial labor was essential to the war (Condell and Liddiard 73).  Women’s private and public roles had merged.  But the advancement of women into trade and industry was seen as temporary.  Once the war ended and the men were back home again, it was expected that women would return to traditional domestic work in their household. 

            Female participation in the war was more limited during World War I than it was during World War II.  Women were not allowed to help fight directly on the frontline.  It was the duty of male citizens to fight in the war for the women and children of their country.  Women who wanted to join in military activities were criticized by opponents for “‘playing at soldiers’” (Grayzel 193).  It was assumed that women could never be asked to make the sacrifice of risking their lives for the country.  Aside from making ammunition and weapons, another way women could help was through volunteer work.  For example, most upper-class women devoted their pre-war charitable skills to raising funds and collecting supplies for the relief of servicemen and their families.  Since the work was voluntary and unpaid, most of the participants were from the middle and upper classes, performed by women who did not have to support others.  Other volunteers became nurses.  Being nurses was the only involvement close to front-line warfare for women.  Their work was more accepted into the male domains of fighting because their work could be compared to the traditional maternal skill of looking after the sick. 

            During World War II, however, it became clear that volunteering was not going to be enough to meet the demands of wartime production and even women were conscripted.  But not all women were eager to join in the war work.  Older women emphasized their responsibility to dependants, especially younger children. A mother voicing a common concern said, “ ‘I often think I’d like to go to work if it wasn’t for the child…if there was a nursery or something’” (Summerfield 40).  Childcare became a problem as the government saw it as an impediment to recruitment.  With fathers away, mothers were often left to run the home alone while working at the same time.  Many mothers pressed for flexible working hours, nurseries, and other arrangements in order to make sure their young children were taken care of.  The government tried to accommodate these working mothers the best it could.  It exempted any woman from undertaking local employment if she ran a large household.  Women with children of school age or younger were also exempted.  But women with young children were under pressure to volunteer for work, and many eventually did take up volunteer work (Summerfield 62).

            A difference between the role of women as mothers between World War I and World War II was that during the first war the British government used propaganda to instill fear and anger in both men and women by suggesting the possibility of soldiers raping British women.  Posters were made reminding people of how German officers had brutally raped the women of Belgium (Grayzel 63).  There were images and reports of women victims who had their breasts cut, and children falling from their mother’s arms and bleeding.  The reports showed the British audience the horror of living through such an experience, and its effects on present and future generations (Grayzel 66).  These depictions implied the possibility that mothers could be injured directly or through attacks on their children if the Germans ever invaded Britain.  The main purpose of these images and reports was to recruit the husbands and sons of British mothers.  Compared with the abusive German officers, the British officers would be honorable and heroic.

            Though British mothers did not have to worry as much about rape during World War II as compared to World War I, because the government had stopped using the rape of mothers in propaganda, they still had their own concerns.  With more advanced military technology, civilian life was no longer as safe as it had been in previous wars.  Even prior to the start of World War II in 1939, there were already plans for evacuation from areas thought to be likely targets of the enemy.  People to be evacuated included primary schoolchildren, their teachers, and mothers with toddlers under five years old.  They were sent to households in the countryside who were willing to offer their homes as shelter for the duration of the war.  But many mothers and children remained in the cities.  Many of those who stayed behind went to public and private shelters built at street level during air raids.  These shelters were often packed with people.  Some families even dug their own shelters into their own back gardens (Lewis 39).  Others slept inside the railroad stations during the nights.  No matter where mothers and their children hid, whether it was in their own home or in a nearby shelter, mothers still had to cope with the regular demands of motherhood.

            There is no doubt that women, especially mothers, contributed immensely to the war efforts during both World War I and World War II.  Beginning with World War I, war was no longer an event that only soldiers lived through.  Everyone’s daily lives, including those of civilians, were affected during these wars as the country engaged in total war.  With the men at war, mothers had to take care of the family themselves and had to deal with issues such as the increase of prices and war work by themselves.  Daily life for these mothers during the two World Wars was further disrupted since they also had to ensure their own, as well as their children’s safety.  Nonetheless, during these difficult and turbulent times, the majority of the British mothers were able to prove their strength and dedication to their family, as well as to their country.