Remembrance Day poppies seen at the Cenotaph, London. (Rex Features via AP Images)
Today (July 28) marks 100 years since the start of the First World War. A conflict of unimaginable scale that effectively redrew the maps of Europe and the Middle East and cost 16 million people their lives. The war also left its mark on British society in all kinds of subtle ways, changing social relationships that had taken centuries to build up, and playing a huge role in the creation of the modern world.
1. Poppies Scarlet corn poppies are very adept at growing in churned-up earth, and they’d had plenty of time to spread seeds across Western Europe thanks to the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century. So when war came once again to Northern France and Flanders, the poppies were one of the few beneficiaries. The Canadian poet John McCrae noted the red blooms in his poem “In Flanders Fields,” and the flower quickly came to represent those who had fallen in battle. The British Legion, formed in 1921, created the Poppy Appeal, selling paper flowers to raise funds in aid of all serving army personnel, and now, from late October until Remembrance Sunday (the nearest Sunday to November 11), British citizens from shop assistants to members of the Royal Family, wear their poppies with pride.
2. Skin Grafts The industrial scale of the war was such that the type of injuries coming back from the front line were different from those experienced before. And with medicine advancing at a similar velocity to weaponry, some giant strides took place in the treatment of badly disfigured men. Harold Gillies was the surgeon who pioneered fresh techniques in transplanting healthy bone, muscle and skin into injured areas, most notably the faces of men caught by bullets or shrapnel in the battle of the Somme in 1916. He realized the men would want as near to normal a face as possible, so he used a sculptor to create a plaster cast of the ideal finished result, and used that as a template.
3. Your Country Needs You
The famous poster of Lord Kitchener and his moustache pointing outwards has become an icon of that era, and inspired similar posters for other armies in other countries, such as the one featuring Uncle Sam above. There are countless parodies too—there’s even a Dumbledore’s Army one—and the poster is instantly recognizable in the U.K. as the “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster of World War II.
4. Chemical Warfare The French may have been lobbing tear gas grenades to try and hold the German army back, but it was the German use of heavy chlorine gas at Ypres that had the greatest effect. Both sides soon took up gas canisters, with newer and nastier strains being developed at some speed. Mustard gas was the most notorious, as it was difficult to spot, and caused blistered skin (internal and external), vomiting and often a temporary form of blindness. And these were just the symptoms of the survivors or those left without permanent injury. Chemical weapons have remained one of the most troubling methods of warfare ever since.
5. P.T.S.D. Better known at the time as “shell shock,” post-traumatic stress disorder was first identified as a definite medical condition in the early years of the war, thanks to the work of the psychologist Charles Myers. He realized that the physiological problems suffered by seemingly unharmed men—temporary blindness, uncontrollable shaking, problems walking or using the toilet—were as a result of a psychological experience in which, as Dr. Myers put it, “the tolerable or controllable limits of horror, fear, anxiety, etc. are overstepped.”
It wasn’t easy to gain acceptance for this condition, or come up with a decent way to treat traumatized men, and it wasn’t until the 1980s that the condition was given the name “post-traumatic stress disorder,” by which time it had been widely accepted as a by-product of the intensity of modern warfare.
6. Votes for Women Had the war not happened, it’s likely that the campaign for women’s suffrage would have taken a lot longer to see results in Britain, and those results would have come after violent and unpopular protests. However, while the men of Britain were away, two million women took their places delivering post, building munitions, driving trucks and making sure the buses ran on time. So when peace was declared, it was hard for the authorities to deny them a say in the way the country was run, providing they were over 30, owned a property (singly or by marriage) or had been to university. True parity with the boys was still another 10 years off.
7. The End of Empire There’s a lot of ground to cover here, but before the First World War the British economy was in surplus and things looked very rosy indeed, because of the way the Empire was configured. After the war, with all commonwealth countries having made incredible contributions and sacrifices, things were not the same, which led in turn to the dissolution of the empire after the Second World War, as this clip explains.
8. Giving Blood In 1914, it was discovered that donated blood could be kept from clotting if it was kept cold in a fridge, with a little sodium citrate. This meant that people could donate blood for transfusion to help keep injured soldiers alive. It took a while to work out the blood groups and who should get what, but this was one of the most significant medical breakthroughs in a time of many.
9. Class Mobility The war took so many British lives that the structure of society itself had to change as a result. The upper classes took the greatest proportional hit, which meant there were far fewer confident and educated sons of privilege to take over the running of the country when the war was over. This coincided with a reduction in the serving classes, as families grew rather partial to earning wages in the factories, among their peers, rather than serving soup to Dowager Countesses. Also, the use of conscription to demand men of all backgrounds join up led to a change in the social structure of the army. Men of humble backgrounds were promoted to officer status, and for the first time, traditional forelock-tugging class distinctions were abandoned in favor of military pragmatism.
10. Daylight-Saving Time A simple innovation that changes the lives of millions of people all over the world every year, and we have the war to thank for it. In 1916, Germany began changing their clocks to suit the hours of daylight available in the day. Forward for the summer months, to give longer sunny evenings, and back in the autumn, to maximize what little sunshine there may have been during the day. Credit should really go to Benjamin Franklin, who is the earliest person on record as having suggested it. While many countries returned to one time zone all year after the war, the Brits kept it up, eventually referring to their daylight-saving time as “British Summer Time.”