We are, perhaps, more familiar with the aftermath of the Second World War than the First. We have a fairly good sense of jubilant VE Day crowds with Churchill on the Buckingham Palace balcony or Atlee’s Labour government creating the NHS and modern Welfare State. Our sense of what followed the Great War, beyond a general sense of misery and death, is rather hazier.
‘There were just no men in the room’. This was how one young lady would decades later remember her debut at the London Season in 1919. Approximately 750,000 British troops died in the war, as well as an additional 150,000 from her colonies, by far the most in any conflict she ever fought. Vast numbers more were mentally and physically scarred. The almost 400,000 who had debilitating trauma, in particular, would suffer from returning to a society that did not understand their pain at best and thought them unpatriotic hysterics at worst.
The dying, however, had not stopped with the Armistice. Spanish Flu, born a French troop hospital in 1918 and carried across the globe by demobilising troops, would kill at least twice as many worldwide as had been during the war. Some 250,000 British people perished, at the epidemic’s height in November 1918; as many as 1 in every 40 people in the country were dying of the disease.
British troops returning home to the jobs they had left behind would find the adjustment difficult. The great majority of the millions of women who had joined the workforce during the war would be unceremoniously forced out of their jobs and back into their homes by the returning veterans. Class tensions were rife. In early 1918, in one of the biggest fits of radicalism in its history, the nascent Labour Party had adopted the old Clause IV, committing the party to pursuing ‘common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange’. In 1919 over 35 million work days were lost to strikes, in 1921 after the introduction of deflationary policies, the figure was 86 million and 2 million were without work.
British troops would also be, despite the nation’s war weariness, deployed to some deeply ignoble ends. British troops stationed in the Raj in 1919 would massacre hundreds of peaceful protestors gathered in the Sikh holy city of Amritsar. In response to increasingly aggressive Irish demands for independence, the government also began a policy of indiscriminate violence against locals. This culminated in 1920 at Croke Park where the police fired on unarmed sports fans killing 14 and injuring 60. These deaths were no less significant than any on the Western Front.
There were amidst the carnage seeds of hope. From 1918, for the first time, all men and most women were allowed to vote. Just as significantly, the war winners at Versailles drew up a peace that it was hoped would be the final peace forever. American President Woodrow Wilson’s demands for a League of Nations and a seat for every nation spoke to the optimism of the time. However, there were some, such as the economist John Maynard Keynes, who could already in 1919 see the next war on the horizon.