Civilians in a World at War 1914-1918 by Tammy M Proctor – A Review

Civilians in a World at War 1914-1918
Tammy M. Proctor
New York University Press, 2010, pg 363

When it comes to the great number of books on war the portion given over to non combatants and the social aspects of war are a small fraction. War is too often a series of maneuvers and counter maneuvers that give geographic and material sense of war, but leave the what took place apart from the battle field unexamined. This is especially true with World War I, Tammy M. Proctor, argues. When describing the war in the west, the relatively narrow stretch of battle field in France and Belgium are the main focus, and for good reason with its legendary stalemate and destruction it is hard to ignore. Other fronts, such as those of eastern Europe, Italy, Turkey, or eastern Africa, are less well known, but surveys of the literature would probably bare out the same finding. Perhaps some of that perception comes the idea that unlike World War II, the First World War was not a very mobile war, the eastern European and east African campaigns aside. However, as Proctor shows, the world of the non combatant was more perilous and central than is usually represented and was a harbinger to what was to come in World War II.

She opens the book with the concept of the citizen soldier, perhaps the weakest part of the book in part because it has been covered in depth in other books. Nonetheless, she provides a good introduction to the need to create soldiers from what, until then, were non combatants. As is not uncommon, her first person material about the reactions of soldiers to their new lives in the armed forces, is the strongest when discussing the western front and helps show the initial call up as of almost joyous confidence (there are scarce records for soldiers who fought on the eastern front). What is most illustrative, though, is the lengths the waring nations went to call men up and how long the plans had been in existence. In the initial call ups you can almost see the course of the war: the Russians chaotic, a paper army in some ways; the Germans efficient and organized; to a lesser extent the same for the French; and the British relied on their professional Imperial volunteers to fight the beginning of the war.

Once she moves away from combatant the book is much more focused and the one take away from the book is that war requires man power, not just at the front, but in support, too. That need drove the use of masses of hired and conscripted labor throughout the war. The British hired men from around the empire, as did the French. Although nominally civilians, dressing in civilian clothing and expected to stay away from the front lines, the men were often quite near combat especially with the advent of aviation and long range artillery. The workers for the allies continued to come in part to show their worth as suggest to the imperial powers and to earn much needed wages. Given that many of the laborers were non European there was racism and smug behavior from the colonial officials that attempted to make sure that the laborers, once exposed to the distractions of France, would be controllable. The same cannot be said for workers for the central powers who used conscription to raise labor battalions. The conscript labor ran the same danger and in a replay of what would happen in World War II as the armies moved back and forth over the same contested terrain, the civilians who had been forced into labor were accused of collaboration.

The chapter on refugees and civilians in occupied areas was also quite good. The difficulty faced by civilians who were caught behind enemy lines could be quite high as neither side really understood how to handle large numbers of refugees or what to do with civilians of an occupied country. The Germans, for example, took hostages in Belgium and obligated countries to provide workers for the war effort. All sides began to use concentration camps to gather contain suspect groups of people. Often the camps were over crowded and badly designed. It is obvious from what she writes, that the civilian encounter with war was much larger than is commonly pictured. Not only were civilians forced to relocate, work, and otherwise help the enemy war effort, with the shifting movement of the front lines in the early days on the western front, throughout the war in the east and in East Africa, civilians were in peril in a greater numbers than any time before.

Proctor is quite good in showing the total mobilization that each country did of its civilian populations. Whether it was women joining the work force or serving as nurses on the fronts, or volunteers joining ambulance units or the YMCA, there was a commitment to seeing the war as something everyone had to take part in in some way. The commitment come from mixed motivations: munitions workers, she notes, coming from working class background, found the work a step up from their typical factory work. The introduction of rationing and the draft on a scale never before seen, also blurred the lines between civilians and soldiers, bringing the war closer to home. Even though some civilians experienced air raids that truly brought the war to a new level, it was total focus on war in all of its aspects that made non combatants something other than civilians.

Civilians in a World at War is successful at showing that World War I had more civilian impact than is generally thought of. She is correct in arguing that World War I redefined the role of the civilian during war. If I have one complaint it was need at the end of every chapter to reargue that she had made her point and that civilians were not people who did not fight, but part of the war and who played critical roles in keeping it sustained.