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Audrey Collins, a record specialist at The National Archives, looks back at the impact of the First World War on the civil service

Royal Statistical Society

By Audrey Collins

21 Nov 2014

The First World War was the first ‘total’ war – virtually all sectors of society had to be ‘mobilised’, and all the nation’s resources harnessed for the war effort. The civil service, like every other employer, had to deal with losing staff to the armed forces and finding replacements to do their work. Some of these replacements were women and recently retired staff recalled for the duration. 

Records in The National Archives describe how civil servants around the country coped with changing conditions. Some staff lists have survived, and some departments reported on the problems they faced. As an Admiralty official wrote in 1915: “In an office… which is engaged solely on war work, it is often a matter of extreme difficulty to decide whether a man’s duty is to remain in his present post or to join the Army.” (TNA ref: PRO 1/80)

That was just the beginning of the challenges. When conscription was introduced in 1916, it was harder for departments to retain experienced staff. They also had to deal with hostile press attention – on 30 May 1916, the Daily Mail accused single men in the civil service of “sheltering under the government umbrella” while married men were called up from elsewhere.

The War Office and Admiralty obviously had a war to run, but other departments also had greatly increased workloads. The Board of Trade and the Ministry of Labour had to ensure that industry was directed to war production, the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries was responsible for maximising food production, and the Ministry of Transport for moving troops, supplies and mail quickly and efficiently. The war also led to the creation of new departments, including the Ministry of Munitions and the Department of National Service. And as ever, Treasury approval was needed so that this extra activity could be paid for.

The National Archives holds a huge collection of records which paint a vivid picture of how civil servants reacted to the war emergency. Records range from government policy such as sugar ration coupons through to an eye-witness account of a Zeppelin raid. 


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