The British Liberal government was not surprised by the war it declared on Germany on August 4, 1914; but what neither it nor anyone else in the country expected or made any plans for was a total war that would last for more than four years.
As Chancellor David Lloyd George told businessmen, he would “enable the traders of this country to carry on business as usual”. At Scarborough, in an advertisement published in The Mercury in September, George A Pindar of 45 St Thomas Street put the case more strongly: “It is a mistake to refrain from shopping. By shopping freely you will encourage steady employment. Do your duty – help to keep business going by shopping as usual. Pindar Print is good for every trade and purpose.” Never had patriotism and profit been more closely identified.
The convenient assumption in Whitehall and at Westminster was that a continental war would engage, reward and damage the great military powers, but Britain’s role would be peripheral, mainly naval and commercial, and relatively cheap. The British would continue to trade profitably throughout the world, its merchant shipping fully protected by the supremacy of the Royal Navy, while their enemies would be blockaded, deprived of both their export markets and their imports of raw materials and food. Since half of Britain’s food was imported from abroad, the Navy’s domination of sea routes was essential, but never doubted. The war could be safely left to sailors and soldiers. Civilians would be only inconvenienced by temporary interruptions to food supply, transport and employment.
One man who was entirely ignorant of the economic consequences of modern war was Lord Kitchener, appointed Secretary of State for War the day after it began. Though he foresaw that the war would be long and costly in lives, he seemed entirely unaware of the effects of withdrawing millions of men from their civilian occupations. He had fought and won wars in Africa inexpensively and saw no reason why this one should be any different. Even worse, the revolutionary expansion of the British army during the next 18 months was entirely by voluntary enlistment: there was to be no conscription or even selective recruitment.
Secondly, there were no plans, even on paper, to supply and equip an army of millions. In August 1914 there were home barracks for only 175,000 and munition factories to arm only 100,000. So skilled textile workers, builders, engineers, metal machinists and coal miners who would be needed to clothe, house and arm Kitchener’s “New Army” were accepted indiscriminately as enlisted soldiers. The predictable result was that when these volunteers first went into battle in the spring of 1915 they lacked all the necessary means except enthusiasm. The Royal Artillery on the Western Front was rationed to seven rounds per gun per day!
At first, the shortage of shells was put down to lazy, drunken munition workers. General Haig suggested that the execution of “two or three of them” would stop the “Drink Habit”. Lloyd George soon joined in: “We are fighting Germans, Austrians and Drink and...the greatest of these deadly foes is Drink.” He didn’t believe it, but he knew that it would please his abstemious constituents.
Since August 1914 little had been done to moderate the nation’s notorious beer-drinking habit. Public house opening hours had in many licensing districts been reduced from about 18 to about 14 hours a day; Lord Kitchener had appealed to the public not to treat soldiers to drinks; and the price of beer had been raised from 3d to 4d a pint. King George V had taken “the pledge” of total abstinence for the duration of the war in April 1915, but few other leaders copied his example, least of all Prime Minster Asquith, popularly known as “Squiffy” and the last of his position to be the worse for alcohol in the House of Commons chamber.
As the German army advanced through Belgium, the Scarborough Evening News reported that public houses in Scalby, Newby and Scalby Mills were out of bounds to soldiers and publicans in Scarborough were not to serve men in uniform after 9pm.
However, from May 1915, drastic changes were gradually imposed on the whole trade. Licensing hours were cut down to a maximum of five hours a day, two from midday and no more than three in the evening. Treating was forbidden. Taxes on alcohol gradually raised the price of a pint of beer to 7d. Greatly reduced in gravity, beer was derided as “government ale”. In England and Wales convictions for drunkenness fell from 3,388 a week in 1914 to 449 in 1918. In Scotland the fall was even greater.
If war can ever bring benefits, this was one of them. Drink ceased to be a daily, routine, indispensable antidote or adjunct to work and the money so saved benefited families in many ways.
Of course, the shortage of shells had nothing to do with beer-drinking and everything to do with manpower management and lack of government planning, but it led to a political reshuffle. Munitions production was transferred from Kitchener to Lloyd George and Asquith let Tories and even some Labour members into his cabinet. The last Liberal ministry in British history gave way to a coalition. But the immensely popular Kitchener was still dictator at the War Office and no one dared to remove him. Copies of the Daily Mail were burned when it blamed him for the “shell scandal”.
Meanwhile the logistical demands of the New Army outdistanced British industrial production. Static warfare required heavy guns and high-explosive ammunition, not light mobile artillery firing shrapnel shells. It also required huge quantities of material: one mile of front line needed 900 miles of barbed wire, six million sandbags, a million cubic feet of timber and 360,000 square feet of corrugated iron.
In short, with over two million men in uniform and responsibility for a lengthening line on the Western Front, it had become necessary for the whole nation, not just its manpower, to be mobilised. By the summer of 1915, women were being employed in jobs previously monopolised by men.
In May 1915, the Scarborough Tramway Company announced that, since it was now impossible to find boys or men, it would have to take on 12 females as uniformed conductors. No rate of their pay was disclosed, but in Aberdeen, where women were already working on the trams, they were getting a handsome wage of 23 shillings a week. They were some of the first of 1.6 million women who eventually filled the vacancies of men who had joined the armed services.