Devon at War

‘There are many kinds of sorrow in this world of love and hate but there is no keener sorrow than a soldier’s for his mate” 
Padre ‘Woodbine Willie’ in 1918

Devon in the early 1900’s

As a rural county, Devon was prime farming land with around 11,000 farmers and 21,000 labourers working on mainly family-run farms with less than 100 acres.  Other rural occupations were popular as reflected in the 1911 census, which shows that Devon had 4,183, Carpenters, 1,806 Blacksmiths and Forge Workers, 335 Saddlers and Harness-makers, and 737 Wheel-wrights; skills that have faded with the passing of time.  Devon’s naval tradition was recognised in a 1912 official return that showed that Devon and Cornwall had more men in the Navy than the whole of Wales and Scotland and it is therefore no surprise that with the outbreak of war in 1914, Devon was a traditional recruiting ground.

Devon at War 1914 -1918

Initially, the war was portrayed as a glorious and exciting adventure that would be over by Christmas, bolstered by faith in the Empire and that the RN was the largest navy in the world.  However, the Army only had 247,000 at the start of the war but, following Lord Kitchener’s call for men to do their patriotic duty, over 500,000 joined up in the first month.   By the end of 1915 the Voluntary Armies comprised nearly three million from a nation of forty million.  As the war fought to a stale mate in 1915, with progress in the trenches measured in yards, it became clear that more men were needed. In February 1916, the Military Service Act brought in the compulsory enlistment initially for single and widowed men of ages 18-40 and then 3 months later for married men as well. 

After the declaration of war thousands of fishermen and other seafarers were soon issued with their call-up papers and told to report immediately to Devonport. Although regular contact with the Army and Navy had instilled a readiness and willingness to fight when war came, many were not driven by militaristic sentiment and favoured humanitarian service, supporting the many charities that were established.

Devon struggled to recruit for the Army, with the South West raising only 11 Battalions compared with 25-30 of some northern counties.  This was partly because many Devonians had a limited view of what the war was about and believed that survival of local businesses and food production were more important for national survival.  The War placed tremendous strain on Britain’s farming community as it threatened to rob farms of their labour through enlistment. From 1915 onward, concerns about the German submarine campaign and its threat to Britain’s shipping and supply lines meant that the farming community had to increase home food production significantly.  Many farmers were still recovering from the agricultural depression of the late 19th century and looking after livestock required skilled care and control so experienced herdsmen were highly valued.  45% of meat was imported from the colonies and Argentina but the threat to the shipping lanes put greater pressure on local production; also, the Army required 15,000 tons of meat each month to feed the troops. Similarly, vast amounts of timber were needed but supply from the Baltic was no longer available.  Horses were also in great.

Horses for War – Kingsbridge 1914

Horses for War – Kingsbridge 1914 demand for the Army.  On the eve of the war the Army had 25,000 horses but by 1917 the number had increased to 600,000; 220,000 supply horses, 219,000 supply mules, 111,000 riding horses, 87,000 gun horses, 75,000 cavalry horses. Only 60,000 were returned at the end of the war.

On the home front, Devon’s defences were mobilised in case of an attack by the German Navy.  On 10 August 1914, Devon County Council announced that Devonians should take the necessary precautions to dim their lights in the evening. Correspondingly, in Plymouth, one of the key ports for the Navy, the windows of houses in the port were screened and any lights extinguished. Along the coastline, trenches were being dug with barbed wire barricades and redoubts of sandbags.  Boy scouts were recruited to watch the coastline and help enforce lighting restrictions along Devon’s coastline. The fishing industry suffered as many had joined the RN and Admiralty restrictions limited their ability to fish. Tourism also struggled with the rail system requisitioned for the transport of troops, some hotels converted to hospitals for the wounded and wartime morality of sacrifice and duty suggested that taking a holiday would be unpatriotic, as evinced by a poster of General Haig saying ‘postpone your holidays’.

By 1915 the belligerent nations had become locked in stalemate which led to rising levels of violence and intensification of the conflict.  The sinking of HMS Formidable off Start Point on 1Jan 15 with the loss of 512 crew and the cruise liner RMS Lusitania in May with the loss of 1100 people played a significant role in hardening peoples attitude to Germany, both in the UK and in the USA.

By 1916, the declining pace of voluntary recruitment across Great Britain led to the introduction of conscription for all men aged 18-41.  This led to significant change in society with greater use of female labour in industries to replace the vacuum of manpower.  Hundreds of thousands of women answered the call and by 1918, the employment of women had increased to 47% of the working age population, compared with 23% in 1914.

The Woman’s Land Army

The productivity of Devon’s farmers was limited due to a shortfall in both manpower and the number of plough horses that had been commandeered for use by the Army.  The introduction of tractor ploughs on Devon farms was initially unsuccessful because few knew how to build and maintain them.  Farm hands would work for ten or twelve or fourteen hours a day for the daily wage of two shillings and six pence (13p) when the national average was closer to 60 shillings (£3) a week or twice that for munitions workers.  In 1915 an appeal went out to recruit more women to work on farms and the Women’s Land Army was formed in 1917; by the end of the war 113,000 were employed on the land.

World War 1 had a significant impact on wage and price inflation.  Prices had hardly increased since the 1850s but in the 4 years of war they doubled.  In his diary entry for 12 April 1917, Arthur Thompson, the Vicar of the mid-Devon village of Ide, revealed that food prices generally had increased by 50%. Thus, under the newly introduced system of rationing each person was allowed ‘4lbs of bread, ¾ lb sugar & 2½ lbs of meat a week. Large quantities of rabbit meat proved to be an effective solution to the decrease in the amount of meat in Devon. In April 1917 the Government under Lloyd George, halved the volume of beer brewed, reduced its strength, increased excise duty by 300%, doubled the price to 8d (4p) and slashed pub hours from 16 hours to 5 hours a day.

The United States had grown increasingly detached from events in Europe and tried very hard to stay neutral throughout most of the conflict, which it saw as a European affair. By 1917 public opinion changed in favour of the US entry into World War I because of increased anti German sentiment caused by German atrocities in Belgium, unrestricted U boat warfare and the sinking of the Lusitania. Also, American businessmen were very interested in the Allied victory as they had helped fund British and French war efforts with approximately $3 billion in loans and bond purchases. If the Allies were defeated by the Central Powers, they probably wouldn’t be able to repay their debt to their US lenders. The United States of America entered into the war in April 1917 and by March 1918 provided an army of 284,000.

In Europe, the recent Russian Revolution and subsequent peace treaty with Germany removed the Eastern Front from consideration. Germany was able to refocus all its efforts towards the Western Front and the fight against Britain and France. The Germans knew that whilst it would take the Americans time to build momentum and needed to act quickly if the war was to be won.  By 30 July 1918, the American army numbered 1 million men. By the start of November it would be 1,872,000. At one point over 10,000 Americans were arriving in Europe every day.  Against such numbers, and faced with a resurgent Allied military, whilst their own army was beaten and exhausted, the Germans realized they could not win and sought peace.  In one 24-hour period in 1918, over 1 million shells were fired at the German defensive line, the Hindenburg line.

The news that the First World War had ended with the signing of the Armistice on 11 November 1918 was received by Devon’s population with a mixture of celebration and relief and heartfelt thanksgiving.  More than 11,000 Devon men and women died in the First World War. Those who survived did not face a life of ease once the war was over. The War Pensions Committee was set up to support discharged soldiers and to provide them with access to medical treatment and training, but trade and industries had been damaged and it was difficult to get jobs, especially for those badly wounded. Meanwhile soldiers’ deaths left countless widows and orphans.

Before World War One, Britain was the world’s economic superpower. With rapid growth and a vast empire, the country enjoyed significant levels of wealth and resources. However it wasn’t ready for the economic impact of war.Although Britain was ultimately victorious, the effects of war would be felt for many years to come. Foreign trade, a key part of the British economy, had been badly damaged by the war. Countries cut off from the supply of British goods had been forced to build up their own industries so were no longer reliant on Britain, instead directly competing with her. In 1920/21, Britain would experience the deepest recession in its history.

The cost of the war was to impact on the economy for decades and it was until December 2014 that the Chancellor of the Exchequer confirmed that he had cleared the debt from the Great War when he redeemed £1.9billion from an outstanding bond which had originally come out in 1917 as part of a campaign to raise money for the First World War.  The Debt Management Office estimated that Britain has paid some £5.5 billion in total interest on the five per cent and 3.5 per cent war loans since 1917.