Review of "Policing the Home Front 1914-1918"

Policing the Home Front 1914-1918: The control of the British population at war

When Britain went to war in 1914, policemen throughout Great Britain confronted a range of new challenges. With the onset of the war the government turned to the police as agents of wartime authority and assigned to them an ever-increasing number of new duties that reflected the expanding power of the British state. Yet at the same time the police found their ability to perform their roles constrained by wartime pressures on both their professional and personal lives. Mary Fraser’s book offers the first examination of the role of the police in Great Britain during the First World War, one that describes both the conflict’s demands upon them and how they sought to meet them.

As Fraser explains, the police were strained by contrasting pressures from the moment Britain entered the war. Once Britain joined the conflict many policemen quit in order to enlist in the armed forces. At the same time, the government expanded police responsibilities by requiring the police to monitor the wives of the men who enlisted to confirm their eligibility for the Wartime Separation Allowances that were provided to them. This foreshadowed a recurrent theme of the role of the police in the war, as many in the government and in society wanted the police to provide the sort of family supervision that the men now serving at the front traditionally provided. To do so, the police turned to “special constables” (many of whom were men avoiding military service) and even employed women in policing roles for the first time.

Unlike the male police officers who came primarily from the working classes, the women who served as constables were mainly from the middle class, and personified the increasing imposition of middle-class standards of morality on the broader population. Nowhere was this better reflected than in the efforts to control drunkenness and the “khaki fever” of young women, both of which remained persistent concerns throughout the war. Another area of worry was the growth in youth crime, which resulted in surveys of both the offenders and their families in an effort to better understand both the root causes and how to address them. Here again the police were tasked with performing roles previously regarded as those of the male heads of household, which meant an expansion of the role of the state in the lives of ordinary British citizens.

The pressures on the police were not limited to their hours on duty, either. Soaring food prices strained household budgets of police families as much as they did those of everyone else on the home front, yet unlike other women the wives of policemen were deterred from seeking employment outside the home. The food crisis later in the war impacted policemen in another way as well, as many of them were ordered to work on farms to compensate for the agricultural labor shortage and help cultivate desperately needed crops. Arguably this was relevant to their responsibility to maintain social order, as food riots in Glasgow and elsewhere demonstrated the growing strains created by food shortages. Though the Ministry of Food expanded the regulation of foodstuffs, it fell again to the police to turn their directives into reality. With their expanded duties and low pay, it was little wonder that by the summer of 1918 many police went out on strike, presaging the social stress Britain would face after the end of the war.

Though the role of the British police in the First World War has long been neglected, Fraser’s book goes far towards filling this gap in our historical understanding. By drawing upon official documents, contemporary professional journals, and the secondary source literature on the home front, she succeeds in reconstructing both the role of the police during the war and the unique pressures their members faced both at work and at home. While the price of the book is daunting, no one interested in the British home front during the war can afford to neglect this ground-breaking study.

Podcast of "Policing the Home Front 1914-1918

I'm delighted to have been asked by New Books Network to have an interview for the development of a podcast. It's now available to hear. I hope you enjoy it, I certainly enjoyed the experience of making it.

In it I discuss how I came to write the book as well as many of the aspects included in it. Policing the Home Front 1914-1918: the control of the British population at war, was published by Routledge in 2019. Here is the front cover:

Police as Ploughmen in Cheshire in 1917

Cheshire was traditionally an agricultural area known at the beginning of the twentieth century for its dairy farming: the production of milk, cheese, butter, beef, mutton, and bacon. From a few years before the First World War the population started to increase, shown in the census of 1911. Expansion was mainly in areas adjacent to Manchester & Liverpool to the North of the county where industry developed along with the need for large amounts of suburban housing for the workers. The population of the rural areas remained static at an average of 0.4 persons per acre. The development of industry threatened the dominance of agriculture and saw the original social leaders, mainly landowners, gradually replaced by businessmen and industrialists. The map below shows the main areas of industry in 1901.