Family life was to be severely challenged by the Great War. With mass recruitment in the early parts of the war came the possibility of the loss of husbands, fathers, and sons. Though the Edwardian Era that preceded the war is seen as a more progressive society that that which had come before, family values were still strongly stratified, with relatively few women working, men the primary breadwinners. Despite their responsibilities, many joined in the first months of war believing in its just cause; many others would be persuaded, and still more emotionally blackmailed. Such peer pressures saw many a man join the colours without due regard to the inevitable consequences for his family if he should be killed, maimed, or otherwise incapable of work.
The Government recognised that married men of recruiting age might need financial inducement to leave their families: separation allowances for an average married private were paid at a weekly rate of 12s 6d for a wife alone, 17s 6d for a wife and one child, 21s for a wife and two children, and so on; but this took into account a compulsory ‘allotment’ of money from the soldier’s own wages – of 6d a day (half the basic shilling a day earned by privates without other enhancements). Those soldiers with other ‘dependants’, that is, ‘any person who is found as a fact to have been dependant on the soldier…to whom the soldier is bound by some natural tie…’ would also need help. In such cases, the Government pledged to make up the amount lost to the dependant by the soldier having joined the army – after the appropriate deductions, of course. How important these factors where in influencing soldiers to join up is a moot point. For many middle class men, further enticement might be the opportunity to return to a good job with a decent employer after the war. Some employers went out of their way to support their employee recruits; not only would their positions be held open, but they would also receive other benefits such as support of the family in some way, or the periodic sending of ‘comforts’ to the frontline. For those injured by the war, and for the wives of soldiers killed in the war, there would be pensions. These would not be generous. Some 2,414,000 men were to be entitled to a war pension, the maximum they could hope to receive being twenty-five shillings a week. Not much for such staggering commitment.
Peter Doyle's Book First World War Britain, published by Shire Publications, is out now, and is available here