Women's Role in Moribund Economy of Warring Nations

  October 21, 2021   Read time 6 min
Women's Role in Moribund Economy of Warring Nations
The place in the workforce of those who joined up was partly filled by women. Women had already been organizing themselves before the war in the ‘Suffragette’ movement to demand the vote, and the leaders of that movement now swung their influence behind the war effort.

Women rapidly became indispensable, not only in the nursing and welfare services but in offices and factories and agriculture, changing the whole balance of society in the process. By 1918 that change was reflected in a new Representation of the People Act, by which the vote was extended from seven million to twenty-one million people, including women over the age of 30. Almost as a by-product of the war, Britain became something approaching a full democracy.

Volunteers and reservists might fill up the ranks of the armed forces, but providing enough weapons and ammunition to arm them was a very different matter. By the end of 1914 practically all the belligerent armies had exhausted their stocks of ammunition, and it was becoming clear that not only men but industry would have to be mobilized for the war effort. In Germany this was done under the auspices of the military, in Britain by the civilians.

There the initiative was taken by the most dynamic member of the government, David Lloyd George, who over Kitchener’s protests created first a Committee and then in May 1915 a Ministry of Munitions, which combined industry, labour, and civil servants under government control with plenary powers over every aspect of munitions supply. In 1917 further such ministries were created, notably of Food and Shipping, largely staffed by experts from the industries themselves, to handle the problems of rationing that arose from the increasing pressure of blockade. In consequence, although by 1918 much of the population was undernourished, the British never approached the levels of hunger and deprivation that their enemies were to suffer by the end of the war.

France had lost 40 per cent of her coal deposits and 90 per cent of her iron ores to German occupation; but she was still a largely agrarian country, and, although her political leadership was notoriously volatile, her administration was in the hands of the formidably efficient bureaucracy created by Napoleon. More important, she retained access to the resources of the western hemisphere, so her excellent armaments industry did not suffer. Her government, like that of Britain a broad-based coalition of centre and left, initially left the conduct of the war to General Joffre, the hero of the Marne. By the end of 1915 the French army had suffered such terrible losses, and produced so little in the way of results, that doubts were growing about Joffre’s competence—- doubts that were to be confirmed by his failure to foresee the German offensive against Verdun the following spring. But there was as yet no inclination to make peace. Traditional patriotism of the right, embodied in the president, Raymond Poincaré, united with the bitter Jacobinism of his harshest critic Georges Clemenceau in determination to win the war and destroy Germany’s power ever to begin another.

Very different was the situation in the Russian Empire. In spite of her huge manpower and the rapid industrialization of her economy, Russia suffered from two major and ultimately lethal drawbacks: geographical isolation and administrative inefficiency. The first crippled her economy, the second made her incapable of mending it. When war began, essential imports dried up and her export trade— largely grain from southern Russia, blockaded at the Dardanelles—declined by 70 per cent. Domestic production could not fill the gap, although native entrepreneurs made huge profits. The Russian armies, like all the others, rapidly ran out of ammunition—and not only ammunition but guns and even small arms. In the huge battles of 1914–15 Russian infantrymen had to attack unprotected by artillery barrages and often lacking even rifles. Unsurprisingly, by the end of 1915 the Russian army had lost about four million men.

The inability of the slothfully incompetent Russian bureaucracy to remedy the situation led to public outcry and the creation of unofficial councils, Zemstva, first to deal with welfare (including the huge influx of refugees from the war zone) but then with every aspect of war administration— food, fuel, transport, and even military affairs. But, whereas in Western Europe such voluntary agencies were welcomed and used by the government, in Russia their activities were deeply resented—both by the professional bureaucrats themselves, including those in the armed forces, and by the aristocratic clique that dominated the court, led by the Czarina and her sinister adviser the monk Rasputin, who opposed the war anyway. In August 1915 this clique persuaded the Czar to dismiss his uncle Nicolas from command of the armies and take titular command himself. In his absence at headquarters the Czarina was able to take charge of the government and block any further attempts at reform.

The result was tragic. By the beginning of 1916 the efforts of the Zemstva were showing results. There was now an abundance of guns and ammunition, while the High Command had been shaken up and was reaching a new level of competence that was to be revealed by General Brusilov’s spectacular success the following summer. But domestically everything was collapsing. The transport system was overwhelmed by the increase in traffic, which led to a breakdown in the supply of fuel and, more important, food for the cities. The winter of 1915–16 saw severe shortage of both in all Russian cities, especially the capital Petrograd (as St Petersburg had been patriotically renamed in 1914). In 1916 the situation was to grow rapidly worse, with growing strikes in the towns and widespread evasion of military service in the countryside. By the end of the year Russia had become ungovernable.

The only consolation for the Allies was that the situation in Austria-Hungary was little better. The Monarchy’s only advantage—and it was not always seen as such—was that the Germans could bring direct help. Had this not been so, the Austrians might well have collapsed even sooner than the Russians. The national—or, rather, multinational—solidarity with which the war was greeted did not last. By the spring of 1915, after Conrad’s disastrous winter campaign, the Austrian army had lost, as we have seen, over two million men, including the bulk of the professional cadres that had held together a force speaking a dozen native languages.

Only increasing infusions of German ‘advisers’ and staff officers kept it going at all. In domestic affairs the Hungarians increasingly went their own way and, being self-supporting in foodstuffs, suffered little from the prolongation of the war. The Austrians had no such advantage. For food they became dependent on the Hungarians, who were reluctant to provide it. The Austrian economy suffered as much as did the German from the effects of the Allied blockade, but the genially incompetent bureaucracy, fearful of imposing any strain on the doubtful loyalty of its population, barely attempted to plan a siege economy or to administer a rationing system. Vienna began to starve even earlier than Petrograd.