Mass society


Image by Dore of London taken from WikipediaNineteenth century Europe had seen the most rapid development in science and technology ever known. The Industrial Revolution was exactly that: a huge change in lifestyles and landscapes, brought about by the industrialisation of towns, cities and some, once rural, areas. The mass movement to cities and centres of industry had an impact on the philosophy of life which people had held for generations. No longer in touch with the natural, if often harsh, cycle of the seasons as they had been as agricultural labourers, the workers were beholden to the man-made, frequently harsh rule of the production line.

The rise of the working man

The beginnings of the welfare state

In 1899, the industrialist and philanthropist Seebohm Rowntree made a systematic study of poverty in the city of York. He identified the very old and the very young as being the most vulnerable to deprivation and, as a consequence of his research, the Liberal Government (elected in 1906) passed the Old Age Pension and the National Insurance Acts of 1908 and 1911 respectively. This marked a change of attitude from the Victorian idea that poverty was the ‘fault’ of thriftless people.

Advances in medicine

Advances made in medicine gradually resulted in increased life expectancy. By 1914 life expectancy was on average 46 years for men and 48 years for women, compared with 40 years for both sexes in 1800. Infant mortality rates had dropped and deaths in childbirth were reduced, resulting in a population increase. A longer life expectancy gave rise to increased demands for an improvement in the quality of that life. One of the ways in which this sense of entitlement was expressed was through the development of the trades union movement. 

Trades unions

The rise of the trade unions was a philosophical development rooted in industrialisation. During the nineteenth century the trade union movement had grown until it was legalised in 1871. Once established, trade unions sponsored candidates for parliament, supported by the Labour Representation Committee which became the Labour Party in 1906. It was led by Keir Hardie and 29 MPs were elected to the House of Commons that year. 

Before 1914 there was unrest among the working population, resulting in a variety of strikes and stoppages. Unsurprisingly, trades unions and socialists were initially opposed to war. They regarded it as the mutual slaughter of working people, only to serve the interests of the privileged. However once the war was declared, the vast majority of the socialist and trade union bodies decided to back the government of their country and support the war.


During WW1 fears of food shortages and a reduced labour force saw the government pass legislation to give itself new powers to protect people. The Defence of the Realm Act ensured that in a time of ‘total war’ it could intervene in public affairs.

The organisation of labour

As manpower was required at the Western Front in ever greater numbers, so for the first time the government organised the employment of women in what had previously been men’s jobs. On the ‘home front’ females worked on farms and in factories, particularly in the highly dangerous armaments industry. 

The war also brought changes in working practices. War related industries flourished with new jobs and there developed a newfound awareness among workers of their own contribution and importance. This had a direct influence of the post war development of the Labour Party, women’s suffrage and social reform. 

Women's suffrage

Image of The Girl Behind the Gun 1915 taken from WikipediaWomen had begun to fight for their democratic right to vote well before the outbreak of war in 1914, often arousing deep hostility from the overwhelmingly male seats of power. However WW1 had a profound effect on the suffragette movement. For the duration of the war national unity was put before women’s rights. As a result of the changes in women’s working conditions and their contribution to the war effort (see above), property-owning women aged over 30 were at last given the vote in 1918 (with a full extension of suffrage in 1928).

The Press

In an era before the mass ownership of radios or televisions, or the real development of a local cinema network, the patriotic mood which helped supply soldiers for the War was particularly fuelled by newspapers. The government supplied visual and written propaganda for them to print. 

Only very rarely were there journals that printed anti-war material. One such was The Nation, which published a few of Owen’s poems. 

Transport systems in 1914 

The Victorian and Edwardian eras had been dominated by two forms of transport:

  • Horse drawn vehicles
  • The railway. 

Both remained crucial in WW1. 

Train lines were hugely extended across Europe in order to transport soldiers to the various war fronts. However, this did mean that men could only advance as far and as fast as rail track could be laid. 

Horses were still important in the early stages of war, to carry officers and haul munitions or provisions. Over the course of the War, there was more tonnage of hay transported across the channel to France to feed horses than there was ammunition. However, the increasing industrialisation of war technology meant the end of traditional horse-mounted cavalry units in favour of tank units. These utilised caterpillar treads and the recent development of the combustion engine. 

In addition, motorised vehicles were requisitioned from private owners and used as ambulances and general transport. Double-decker buses were also requisitioned and many men were transported to the front in this way. The pre-war development of the petrol engine also led to the accelerated use of aeroplanes and motor bikes, used as combat and surveillance vehicles. Each played a significant part in WW1.


Photo image of Vickers machine gun crew 1917 available from WikipediaBy 1914 the machine gun was capable of rapid re-firing, enabling mass killing. The discovery of chemicals for use in warfare, e.g. mustard gas, resulted in the indiscriminate slaughter of troops, without damage to trenches and weapons. Zeppelins and aeroplanes changed the nature of war and brought fear from the skies. They also enabled reconnaissance to take place and, as a consequence, more targeted attacks. Sophisticated shell technology resulted in the bombardment of coastal towns from the sea. Despite scientific advances having bettered living conditions for many, they had also increased the level of destruction of human life, due to the improved sophistication of war-heads.

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