Civilian Populations: Between Involvement and Suffering

French school system: History, 3rd and 1st • Canadian grade level: Grades 9 to 12


From our contemporary viewpoint, the designation of the First World War as the “Great War” is justified not so much by the duration of the conflict—after all, the expression dates from as early as 1915—but by the universal mobilization it entailed, engaging not only all the able-bodied men in the belligerent countries but also the civilian populations, who were just as indispensable in supporting the war effort.

We can even speak of two mobilizations that indubitably made the First World War a unique mass phenomenon. The extent of the involvement of civilians, who represented up to 80 percent of the respective populations, was unprecedented in world history. This involvement, of a multifaceted, transformative nature, has been an historical research subject in its own right for several decades now. In Canada, one of the forms of this total war was the internment in isolated camps of whole families of immigrant origin, including many citizens of the territories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Civilian involvement in total war

An involvement encouraged and supported by the state

(see the file “State Involvement during the War” : forthcoming)

A multifaceted, transformative involvement

Families were left without their adult male members. Women became factory workers, heads of families, nurses, and “war godmothers.” They may not have fought, but they participated fully in the war effort, taking over for the men who had been sent to the front. In Canada, women took civilian jobs with the Canadian forces in England and France, as well as at home. They drove trucks and ambulances overseas, and carried out administrative and technical tasks in Canada, notably for the British Royal Air Force, which had training centres there. In 1918, there were 750 female airplane mechanics working for the RAF in Canada. Towards the end of the war, the Canadian Women’s Service was created, whose members were typists, accountants, librarians, stenographers, cooks, mechanics, and others, each one replacing a man who was freed for combat.

Women as field and factory workers

Starting in August 1914, in the countries that had entered the war, women were called on to replace a very high number of farm workers in the countryside (in France, for example, farmers represented 41 percent of the active population) who had been mobilized for combat by conscription or by voluntary enlistment, depending on the country. The role of women was all the more essential in the rural areas, as agricultural produce was needed to feed the soldiers at the front and their families at home, and the situation was made critical by the fact that the war began before the end of harvest time. Thus, in France, at the very beginning of the war, with two thirds of the men in the agricultural sector having left for the front, Prime Minister René Viviani urged the women of farming families to finish harvesting and prepare the fields. French villages were drained of their active male population, and men too old or too young to enlist were sent to do field work. Even Canadian soldiers on leave were expected to help on French farms, as attested to by many period photographs, regimental histories, and by the writings of a French officer assigned to liaison with the British Empire troops.

In addition, to fulfill a crucial need for weaponry, the female work force rose by 20 percent in the munitions, metallurgical, and chemical factories. The munitions factories were understandably a priority industry and needed a high number of workers. To make these jobs more attractive to women in spite of the very difficult working conditions and health risks associated with them, the manufacturers offered good salaries. The female workers, nicknamed “munitionettes” or “bomb girls” (and “obusettes”, in France), packed shells during 12-hour shifts, the high toxicity of the ingredients causing burns and skin lesions, as well as turning the skin yellow due to exposure to melinite. Deaths occasionally occurred when the women exceeded their daily inhalation limit, or when their blood was poisoned by gunpowder. A wide range of other pathologies could result, such as vision problems, memory loss, and convulsions. Thus, working conditions in these factories were extremely difficult, without counting the numerous accidental deaths caused by explosions, including when a hand grenade unit blew up.

Female workers in a tire factory in Lancashire, UK, September 1918.
Photograph by George P. Lewis, Imperial War Museums, Ministry of Information First World War Official Collection.

The feminization of factory work brought about changes in the division of labour. Tasks were further specialized and in some factories, special arrangements were made for women workers; Citroën, for example, set up rooms for breastfeeding babies. On the other hand, the fast pace required in these jobs led to the creation of supervisory positions: the French government, aware of the hazardous working conditions for the women, designated a new job category that involved the surveillance and protection of female workers’ health. A special school was opened to train women for these positions, for which they also had to qualify as nurses.

The prominent images of the young women packing shell heads somewhat obscured the roles of the majority of women in wartime, who, excluding those working on farms, were mainly engaged in third-sector activities such as the postal service and the railways (as ticket sellers and gate-keepers).

The nurses, professionally trained or not, and the volunteer medical corps

Women played other, equally important roles, supporting combatants psychologically and emotionally, as well as physically.

Firstly, the First World War constituted an important turning point in the history of nursing in industrialized countries. During the 19th century, the need for medical personnel increased, as did the number of women who wanted to work outside the private, domestic sphere. Furthermore, practising Catholic women from aristocratic or wealthy bourgeois backgrounds were encouraged by Pope Leo XIII, in whose view nursing was a commendable way of serving God.

In 1859, the creation of the Red Cross by Henri Dunant brought the institutionalization of the nursing profession, which had previously been exercised by carrying out the charitable work that was prevalent in that era. Towards the end of the 19th century, the secularization of French hospitals led to the creation of more jobs for lay nurses. In addition, the free health care law of 1893 made it possible for doctors to establish training schools for medical assistants (the first opened at the Salpétrière in Paris in 1907). Thus, three categories of nurses co-existed in France: the (Catholic) nursing sisters; the nurses trained by the Red Cross (nicknamed “vaches,” perhaps in reference to the Swiss origin of the organization); and the nurses trained in the public health system (nicknamed “putains”). The war was a considerable boost for the development and the qualifications of nursing, as the need for them increased exponentially, but also because the treatment of the numerous and diversified pathologies caused by the war required solid training and multiple skills, both in emergency care and in the prevention and treatment of infection and disease. The nurse’s uniform was standardized to the white head veils and aprons over dresses or blouses, and the work of nurses was given professional status as the war continued.

In Canada, a military nursing service had existed since 1904, and military nurses held the rank of lieutenant, with the accompanying salary; the conferring of officer status to nurses was unique to Canada among the Allied countries. On November 4, 1914, Margaret C. Macdonald, head nurse of the Canadian Army Nursing Service, was promoted to major, the first woman in the British Empire to have achieved such a high rank. Most of the Canadian volunteer nurses who served in the Great War were middle-class women, as this profession was viewed with respect in Canada and required a high-school diploma.

During the conflict, the nurses had to perform numerous tasks. Those known as the “white angels” even worked at the front where they were requisitioned, serving in the evacuation hospitals behind the lines, or in the motorized surgery labs known as autochirs. They were as active in permanent structures as in temporary barracks, expeditionary camps, ambulances, and hospital ships. Their commitment took them into the heart of the conflict, as they intervened everywhere the fighting took place.

The Canadian army nurses, mostly civilians, served in Canada, Great Britain, France, Belgium, Egypt, and Greece; in certain cases, they were better treated and paid when serving under British command than their British colleagues were.

Front Lines - Nurses at the Front (07:44)

Canadian nursing sisters played a major role during the First World War. 2 504 served in Europe between 1914 and 1918. This film enables us to follow the journey of one of them.
Directed by Claude Guilmain, produced by Anne-Marie Rocher
© National Film Board of Canada, 2008

Charitable societies and their volunteers also played a vital role in the Great War, essentially in the medical services. Among these, the Red Cross was continually active in the conflict.

Women in the Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment equipped for the front, 1914.</br>Agence Rol, Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie [EST EI-13 (391)].

In France, after 1878, a series of decrees by the War Ministry regulated the function of the Red Cross so that it would be aligned with the army medical corps if war broke out. Thus, in the case of an eventual conflict, the Red Cross would set up auxiliary hospitals, train medical staff, build up a reserve of supplies, and equip infirmaries in railway stations. It had a staff of 192,000 during the war, enabling it to, among other things, establish some 1,500 auxiliary hospitals behind the front lines, staffed by 68,000 graduate nurses, of whom 3,000 worked in military hospitals. Besides the paid and unpaid doctors and nurses in these hospitals, other civilian volunteers worked as ambulance drivers and civilian stretcher-bearers attached to the Red Cross first aid stations that moved according to happenings at the front.

Overall, the medical staff, continually on call and overworked in the conflict, faced very difficult living and working conditions, including high exposure to epidemics and psychological strain. They were often under fire themselves. In all, 45 Canadian nurses died in the war. Fourteen were killed when the Llandovery Castle, a Canadian hospital ship, was torpedoed by a German submarine in June 1918. Three nurses at the Canadian General Hospital at Étaples (an important Allied base on the English Channel in northern France) and three others at Canadian Stationary Hospital No. 3 in Doullens (inland in the same region) were killed when their hospitals were bombed in May 1918. Hundreds of medical workers died in similar circumstances during the war.

Civilians from all countries joined the wartime medical services, offering their assistance. A notable example was the founding of the first French-Canadian Hospital (FCH) in France under the direction of Dr. Arthur Mignault in March 1915. Some time later, a second Canadian hospital was opened in Laval. Dr. Mignault appointed Henriette Casault—the eldest daughter of Sir Louis Napoléon Casault, a former chief justice of the Province of Quebec (1894–1904)—as head nurse, and in winter 1916 the nurses of the FCH at Saint-Cloud, near Paris, moved into the new premises to prepare for the arrival of the first patients. Before long, they had to treat very serious artillery wounds, and soon after the opening of the military hospital, in March 1916, they received several hundred soldiers wounded at the Battle of Verdun.

Arthur Mignault and Head Nurse Henriette Casault (behind him) at the French-Canadian hospital at St. Cloud.

Other forms of civilian involvement were seen among wealthier citizens, who offered their large homes and castles for use as hospitals; the Duchess of Uzès is just one example.

Generally speaking, humanitarian initiatives reached an unprecedented level in Europe and in North America. Volunteering for the war effort, as well as donations, increased everywhere.

The war godmothers

At the beginning of 1915, Frenchwoman Marguerite De Lens founded an association named La Famille du Soldat, whose mission was to send letters, packages, and photographs to soldiers cut off from their families, to give them comfort and raise their morale at the front. This was the beginning of the war godmother movement.

Praised by the population as a product of the Union Sacrée (a wartime truce among political parties), the godmothers were given “support to publicize their cause, including free advertising in L'Écho de Paris. A similar association, Mon Soldat, was founded by Mme. Philippe Bérard and promoted by the minister of war, Alexandre Millerand.” The war godmothers’ actions were wildly successful, and in May 1915, a Parisian bi-monthly magazine, Fantasio, started a column called “Le flirt sur le front,” whose purpose was to connect combatants with women on the home front. The initiative inspired by the godmothers’ noble work became more of a man-seeks-woman column, and was closed down by the magazine after a few months. However, in December 1915, another magazine, La Vie Parisienne, invited soldiers to publish personal ads. This feature was so popular that soon, the magazine was publishing two full pages of appeals from “godsons” wanting to be “adopted.” Other newspapers and magazines followed suit, publishing letters written by soldiers seeking godmothers.

Thus, the godmothers’ initial aim of offering comfort and encouragement to the poilus, the French infantry men at the front, had turned into a kind of lonely hearts club. In consequence, the perception of the godmothers as incarnations of patriotism gradually eroded until they even became the target of criticism, and from the latter part of 1915 onward, they were most often viewed as loose women or old maids who were taking advantage of the circumstances: “After being praised, the godmothers were disgraced, accused of looking for erotic adventures.”

“Request for a war godmother. Young infantryman with a scanty beard would like to correspond with a young godmother with treasures of love to expend.”</br>Postcard illustrated by Xavier Sager, circa 1915.</br>For use in class only.

The prostitutes

At the beginning of the war, bawdy houses were relatively discreet, notably due to effective campaigns carried out by social hygiene movements. During the war, however, as these places were heavily frequented by enlisted men, the army authorities adopted a tolerant attitude towards prostitutes, who, moreover, tended to move ever closer to the battlefronts to mingle with their clients. Abandoning the attempt to restrict prostitution, the army, in the interest of preventing the spread of disease, occasionally provided the premises for this use, particularly after 1918.

The children

During the war, in all the belligerent countries, women assumed full parental authority and were responsible for their children’s education while their husbands were at the front. In France, on August 5, 1914, the government initiated a daily allowance for the soldiers’ wives, who had to meet their families’ needs despite the rationing and the particularly harsh deprivation that prevailed in regions near combat zones or that were subject to invasions.

Children, for their part, were the target of intensive propaganda issued by the national governments of the belligerent countries with the aim of boosting the war effort. The case of France is particularly telling. Since France’s defeat by Prussia in 1871, the French government deemed that a large part of the reason for the defeat was faulty education, and therefore, actively promoted the strengthening of patriotism through education. This policy was applied with particular insistence during the Great War. The public school curriculum, children’s games and toys, and children’s literature all transmitted an uncompromisingly patriotic discourse. Starting in 1914, school textbooks and classes in moral education, history, geography, and French taught children that the men fighting the war against Germany were the standard-bearers of the civilizing values that would guarantee their future against adversity inflicted by “barbarian” peoples. The idea was instilled in the children that to duplicate the duty of the soldiers fighting for this just cause on the battlefield, their duty was to excel in school to show themselves worthy of the commitment, and above all, the sacrifice made by their elders.

In addition, in the absence of their fathers, children took on greater responsibilities at home. Older children had to help look after their younger siblings and with the domestic chores. Children were called upon to participate in the war effort from a very young age, according to his or her ability. Boys worked on farms or in factories, and girls helped sew clothing and other items that were sent to the men at the front.

The suffering of the civilian populations

Separation, loneliness, and grieving for the dead

Along with the deprivation caused by the many shortages, deep suffering was caused by another kind of deprivation. The mobilization of men to the front and the deaths of many husbands and sons resulted in painful separation, loneliness, and grief, not only for the bereft women and children, but also for village communities and circles of friends. Loneliness, and suffering due to the absence of husbands, sons, friends, and colleagues, was an essential characteristic of civilian societies in the Great War. Some comfort was provided by the strengthening of community solidarity in various ways, when this was possible. In Canada, support organizations were formed to gather funds and staple items to send to the Belgian and French families who had lost everything in the German invasion, and also to help the Belgian and French families established in Canada when their men left to fight in their countries of origin. Added to the already heavy burden was the suffering of waiting for news from the front—the anxiety of hoping for good news and fearing to receive bad. Waiting periods were excruciatingly long in regions far from the combat zones, like North America or Australia, where the mail took several weeks to arrive.

Relatives of Private Noël and of Corporal Girardot visiting a war grave, Chambry (Seine-et-Marne, France), 1915.

The high death rate of the youngest among the enlisted men was particularly painful for mothers and siblings, but they were not the only ones affected: many fiancées, known as “white widows,” were also in mourning. Grieving for the dead was all the more agonizing because of the youth of so many of the soldiers. Sometimes, the young man killed was an only son or the only child in the family.


Many regions on both sides suffered invasions and periods of occupation during the First World War. The Serbian front, the Russian front, the Belgian front… civilians were the first victims of the invasions, which often entailed atrocities or other forms of harsh reprisals. They were the targets of various types of violence carried out by the invading troops, including summary execution, rape, and hostage-taking, accompanied more often than not by gratuitous sacking and pillaging. On all the Great War fronts, civilian populations were exposed to the violence of invasion.

On the Belgian front in 1914, the advancing Germans reacted in fear of Belgian or French sniper fire. At Dinant (Belgium), “mass executions and the use of civilians as human shields caused the deaths of 674 people, or 10 percent of the total population, and public and private buildings, the archives, and all the art works and monuments were destroyed.”

Shortages and extreme deprivation

The universal mobilization of able-bodied men at the beginning of the war immediately led to a precipitous drop in food production in the belligerent countries. The sudden withdrawal of the majority of male farm workers in August 1914, when the harvest had not been fully gathered in, could not always be made up for by the massive recruitment of women and children to work the fields. Furthermore, countries that were importing many of their agricultural products (for human consumption and animal fodder) soon found themselves facing serious shortages at the beginning of the war, with the breakdown of diplomatic relations and the hostilities causing trade to stop. Furthermore, “in some cases, military strategy aimed to starve enemy civilians by a blockade or by submarine warfare, worsening their material difficulties.” The consequences of a blockade could be significant, particularly in the case of Germany, which suffered acutely from the blockade progressively put in place after August 1914 by the British and the French. The effects were immediate, and the cessation of imports brought shortages that affected the food supply above all.

Here again, civilians bore the brunt of the multiple shortages caused by events. A number of solutions were devised to attenuate the difficulties. One was the widespread use of substitute ingredients. In Germany, for example, ersatz (replacement) products were used in kriegsbrot (war bread), for which flour was mixed with potatoes or other root vegetables. Another attempt to solve the problem was the imposition of rationing in some cities and towns. Due to the blockade, Germany was forced to apply drastic measures. Soup kitchens were set up almost everywhere to supplement the very meager regulated rations, which corresponded to a diet of well below 1000 calories per day. Great Britain, for its part, had long relied on receiving food supplies from its colonies, and this dependence increased during the war. A significant portion of the harvests of Canadian farms went to feed England and other Allied countries, including France. However, the same pressures were felt in Canada as in other countries at war with the demand for soldiers competing with the demand for agricultural workers. A federal government “Patriotism and Production” campaign increased the supply somewhat during the war. As early as autumn 1914, Canadians sent a gift of more than one million bags of flour and four million pounds of cheese to England.

The details of the human toll of the deprivation during the Great War are still debated by historians. However, it is generally agreed that several hundreds of thousands of people died as a result. This is without counting deaths due to the political consequences of the shortages, such as hunger riots and other actions of civil unrest as despairing people were driven to revolt, creating fertile ground for civil war.

Bombardment and destruction by artillery fire

The destruction that characterized the Great War was not always a result of military strategy on the battlefield. Indeed, artillery fire and bombardment was also intended to destroy infrastructures, to hamper as much as possible the advance or retreat of enemy troops. Another objective of wreaking havoc was to strike a blow at civilian morale and to prevent the population from living peaceful lives. Historian Anne Duménil writes that during their retreat from France in February 1917, the German troops made “the roads impassable, the houses uninhabitable, and the wells contaminated; the villages were systematically burned, artisanal and industrial facilities were destroyed, and agricultural equipment was wrecked; not even fruit trees in gardens escaped the systematic destruction.” Bombings were also planned with the aim of diminishing the strength of the enemy’s industrial production. During the spring of 1917, German aviators carried out bombing raids on the industrial areas of London; in the process, 1,414 British civilians were killed and 3,416 injured.

The systematic bombing of cities was very frequent. The long-range “Pariser Kanonen” guns used by the Germans to fire on the French capital in 1918, often confused—even by contemporary witnesses—with the “Big Bertha” bomb, killed 256 civilians and wounded 625. German bombings by Zeppelin blimps, beginning in 1914, and later by fighter planes, left an additional 267 dead and 602 wounded. 

The case of Reims, France, was emblematic of the damage caused by carpet bombing. The city underwent 1,051 days of bombardment. At the end of the war, only 60 of its houses could still be lived in.

Due to advancements in the development of weaponry and the strategic choices made, the Great War took material damage suffered by civilian populations to an unprecedented level.

Bombed market square, Ypres, 1915.</br>Agence Rol, Bibliothèque nationale de France [Rol, 44835].

Massacres: The Armenian genocide

Today, as at the time the events occurred, the racialist motives of the Armenian massacres are not always acknowledged, with some defending the idea that the massacres did not aim to systematically exterminate the Armenian people. This is why the application of the legal term of genocide is still contested in some quarters, and the subject has remained a very sensitive one. France and several other countries have officially recognized the massacres as legally constituting a genocide, and the event is presented as such in school programs.

At the beginning of the 20th century, members of the Young Turk movement, in the interest of “creating a racially homogeneous Turkish nation, (…) increased atrocities against the Armenians of Asia Minor (atrocities that had largely begun at the end of the 19th century and which had largely been denounced by many at that time). Between 20,000 and 30,000 Armenians had (already) been slaughtered at Adana on April 1, 1909.” Exacerbating the situation, the government “campaigned to convince Turks to boycott businesses belonging to Greeks, Jews, and Armenians.”

However, it was in 1915, after the crushing defeat of the Turks by Russia at Sarikamish in the Caucasus, that Enver Pasha’s government, accusing the Armenians of supporting Russia, hardened and systematized the measures against them. The justification given by the government in Istanbul, headed by Sultan Mehmet V, an ally of Germany, was to prevent an alliance between the Ottomans’ historical enemy, Orthodox Russia, and the Christian Armenians within the country.

Thus it was that on Saturday, April 24, 1915, in Istanbul, 600 prominent Armenian citizens were murdered on the orders on the government, and the “Temporary Law of Deportation,” passed on May 27, 1915, established a regulatory framework for the deportation of the survivors and the seizure of the victims’ possessions. It was the start of the first 20th-century genocide, which wiped out approximately one million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.

Armenian woman kneeling beside dead child in field at Aleppo, Syria.</br>Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington DC [LC-USZ62-48100].

Epidemics: The Spanish influenza

Epidemics occur frequently in wars, and the Great War was no exception. Typhus regularly ravaged hospitals that were overburdened and overcrowded with vulnerable wounded soldiers; the struggle against the spread of viruses and bacteria was a constant worry for the doctors and nurses. It is impossible to arrive at the exact number of the victims of these epidemics, just as we know little about the disease known as the Spanish influenza, or the virus that caused it and spread so rapidly in 1918 and 1919, killing between 20 and 40 million people according to the Institut Pasteur. This figure rises to 100 million deaths if recent re-evaluations are to be believed. In recorded history, the “Spanish flu” is the epidemic that killed the most people in such a short time, overtaking even the Black Death in this sense.

The disease’s popular name, the “Spanish flu,” came from the fact that in June 1918, 70 percent of the population of Madrid came down with it in only a few days. Also, in Spain, which was not involved in the war, information about the epidemic could be reported without being censored. French newspapers, on the other hand, published news about the “Spanish influenza” that was causing ravages “in Spain,” without mentioning the cases in France, kept secret so that the enemy would not be aware that the army and the country were affected, and therefore, vulnerable.

In the United States, where the virus is thought to have originated, more than a quarter of the population was infected, and between 400,000 and 675,000 people died from it. In France, the estimated number of deaths lay somewhere between 120,000 and 240,000. In Canada, it was approximately 50,000. For Africa (with 150,000 unverifiable deaths in Kenya) and Asia, however, information is spotty. In the case of India, the debated estimates vary between one and 20 million deaths. In the Far East and Oceania, it would appear that the victims were extremely numerous, with some 1,500,000 deaths estimated for Indonesia alone. What is certain is that the number of victims of the Spanish flu was triple that of the victims of the First World War.

The historical context was undoubtedly an important factor in the high number of deaths: after four years of an appalling, geographically widespread war, the populations of Europe were exhausted. Medical treatment was practically inaccessible to civilians, as priority was given to the war wounded. In any case, disease-control mechanisms such as virological and epidemiological surveillance were non-existent in 1918, as were antivirals and antibiotics to treat gangrene and secondary infections. Furthermore, as information was strictly censored, it was all the more difficult to put in place policies and measures that might have prevented the rapid spread of the virus and contained the pandemic. Finally, the exceptional amount of moving about by soldiers and civilians in wartime must have played an essential role in the propagation of the virus.

Demonstration at the Red Cross Emergency Ambulance Station in Washington DC during the influenza pandemic, 1918.</br>Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington DC [LC-DIG-npcc-18662].
Influenza victims crowd into an emergency hospital near Fort Riley, Kansas, USA, 1918.


Bibliography / Webography

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© Réseau Canopé, 2015