1917: Doing Their Bit

Writing What Lies Beneath was a fascinating experience for me. The early 20th century was not a time I knew a great deal about, so there was definitely a learning curve both historically and culturally.

One thing that struck me as I did the research to write this story is how much World War I was truly the first BIG media-covered war (though the Spanish-American War in 1898 was in many ways a rehearsal for it).

By 1917 the cinema had become an important part of people’s everyday lives; in the newsreels shown in theatres, moving picture footage of actual battlegrounds and armies could be seen. Also, photography was now more easily reproducible in newspapers and magazine, and both of these served to bring the war “home” in ways that just hadn’t been possible before. And let’s face it, war is big news. It sells a lot of newspapers and magazines, so there was plenty of coverage of it in popular media.

That coverage extended to media intended for a female audience. World War I was probably the first war that called strongly on all American citizens, male and female, to help in whatever way possible. For men, it was enlisting, obviously. But women, too, were encouraged—heck, exhorted, as in the editorial above from the June 1917 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal—to “do their bit.” The countries at war with the Kaiser not only needed soldiers, but support personnel, war materiél, and food to feed their civilian populations. Belgium in particular was experiencing famine conditions as no one could grow food when large swathes of the country formed the battlegrounds of the war, and cross-Atlantic trade had been severely hampered by German u-boat activity.

So in a very real sense, women did have to “do their bit” for the war effort. Since they were the homemakers, they were the ones in charge of purchasing and preparing food…and they were the ones who could cut down on the use of wheat, beef, and other food that could be shipped overseas to feed troops and hungry European civilians, and learn to make do with other food sources.

But food wasn’t the only place women helped. Since so many young men were being shipped overseas to fight, young women began to replace them on farms and in factories. And let’s not forget medical personnel and other support people, from clerks and secretaries in Washington to ambulance drivers on the western front. Over the next few weeks I’ll talk a little more about how young women “went to war” in World War I.

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1917: Doing Their Bit — 3 Comments

  1. The War of the Rebellion was THE subject of all the newspapers during its time — at least as long as the traitorous south had paper and ink to print papers. Of course the Union never did run out of these essentials. The technologies of telegraph and railroads contributed enormously to the coverage in nearly ‘real time’. There was a great deal of photography, though not in newspapers — that didn’t become common until 1919. But the papers did print from the sketches and drawings made by the artists they sent to cover the battlefields during the War of the Rebellion. The papers also carried constant appeals to women, who did quite a few bits for the effort, on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.

  2. During my first trip to Britain I was struck by the number of memorials to the fallen soldiers of WWI. Every village at least had a brass plaque with a list of names. Often many with the same last name. England and Europe were at war for years before the U.S. entered the fray. Their death tolls were enormous and had a huge impact upon the economy, the culture, the family dynamic. Everything. The U.S. involvement was but a mere echo of this.

    Some historians attribute those losses as a trigger point for women’s suffrage. Having lost almost an entire generation of men, the women had to pick up the pieces and take a more active roll in running things, like families and companies, and eventually the government.

    • There is a lovely folk song on the subject called ‘Dancing at Whitsun.’ It seems that in some of the smaller villages, they couldn’t find enough men needed for the traditional Morris dances, and if the women had not (literally) stepped forward to up the count, they would have lost the tradition entirely. Go listen.

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