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Home <> 20th Century Review <> 1910's - Women and War

1910's - Women and War


In 1911 George V was crowned in London with great ceremony and much rejoicing. As well as bonfires being lit up and down the country, some buildings, including the Bank of England, were decked out and covered in electric lights – one of the first times this had happened in Britain.

A patriotic jigsaw puzzle depicting the new King flanked by the Queen and the young Prince of Wales, went on sale.

The Lord Mayor London held a coronation lunch for the King and Queen at Mansion House in the heart of the City. Within his own domain, the Lord Mayor takes precedence over all others, even Kings, yielding first place in procession only to the reigning monarch.


For the Edwardian Londoner, live performance -- whether straight play, musical comedy or variety -- was available in abundance. And variety meant variety in those days, when comics, performing animals and stars like prima ballerina Anna Pavlova might share a bill.

But by 1912, London was home to some 500 cinemas too, the first West End cinema being the Egyptian Hall. With purpose-built cinemas springing up, some variety theatres closed and others converted to showing films.

Stage stars began to look to the screen to bring them greater fame and fortune.. Long-time Broadway favourite Douglas Fairbanks made the move in 1915 with ‘The Lamb’.

Fresh Style for Young Women

Young ladies discarded their corsets, and adopted boneless stays and a softer, more natural figure. Previously, the tyranny of the S-bend silhouette had led some women to have surgery to remove ribs.

Now, encouraged by the Rational Dress League, which advised wearing no more than seven pounds of underwear, many rejected fashions that distorted the body and restricted movement.

One of the most influential designers was Parisian Paul Poiret, who introduced a more relaxed shape by extending the whalebone corset to the hips and shedding vast amounts of underclothes.

Soon, designers were creating an even looser, sleeker style, which was popularised by magazines such as ‘The Delineator’, which had a circulation of more than one million.

World War I

Such was the initial patriotism and enthusiasm in Britain for the war that well over a million men rushed to volunteer for the fighting within four months of war being declared, leaving the home workforce seriously depleted.

In factory and field, mine and shipyard, women started to become a familiar part of the picture. They trained as plumbers, engineers, undertakers and police officers. They operated lathes, fixed truck engines and helped build ships.

The work was tough -- often 12 hours a day, seven days a week – and they were paid less than men had been. As many as 24,000 women were employed in munitions at London’s Woolwich Arsenal. The pay was good -- £2 10s a day – but it was dangerous work. Many contracted lung and skin diseases, lost fingers or were blinded while handling explosives.

Airship Air Raids

The first serious air raid over Britain happened early in 1915. It was not until September of the following year that the first Zeppelin airship was shot down, over Cuffley in Hertfordshire. The man who brought it down was awarded the Victoria Cross.

In response to a request from Lloyd George to set an example to war workers, the King made all royal residences “dry” (of alcohol) for the duration of the Great War.

Amid the many patriotic war songs were Royal Navy airman Ivor Novello’s “Keep the Home Fires Burning”, which propelled him to fame, and “Take me Back to Dear Old Blighty” which became hit of the year.

Victory Celebrations

As soldiers returned home after the war and women workers left the munitions factories, street parties were held to celebrate the peace.

After the spontaneous celebrations of Armistice Day in 1918, the peace celebrations were formally organised on a grand scale. In the Great Victory Parade of July 1919, troops marched up London’s Whitehall to Trafalgar Square.

The war poet Rupert Brooke who wrote “There’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever England” died on St George’s Day on Skyros in Greece in 1915 and never got to see the end of the war.

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