The War That Changed the World

CanadianWW1 soldier

Canadian soldier heading overseas, c. 1916

This week (July 28 – August 4) marks the centenary of the start of World War 1. Many historians look at the War as the catalyst that ushered in the modern age. Although there were already changes underway in social conventions, the arts, popular culture and industrial mass production, everything was accelerated because of the War.

Soldiers in cloth caps went off to battle in 1914 on horseback. Within four years the tools of war had changed to helmets, machine guns, howitzers, tanks, flamethrowers, submarines, depth charges, mines, grenades, chemical weapons, warplanes, aircraft carriers, oil-fueled ships, and zeppelins. Some of these technologies were invented before 1914, but the War perfected their use.

The War also initiated advancements in triage, psychotherapy, prosthetics and plastic surgery; brought about the introduction of daylight savings time and prohibition; popularized canned food and vegetarianism; polished the art of propaganda with the invention of newsreels, and gave rise to fascism, communism, and anti-Semitism. New ‘war’ words were coined into everyday language: dud, ace, shell-shocked, camouflage, blooey, bomber, ammo.


English women, c. 1917

The War ended Monarchial rule in Europe, broke apart the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, gave birth to Middle Eastern conflict, created new countries  (Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Turkey…) and invented the League of Nations to avoid future conflicts. It drained Britain’s resources and gave rise to its former colonies as independent nations. The U.S. became an economic superpower and its cities grew rapidly as more migrants flooded in from rural America looking for employment in the new factories; inner-city suburbs and apartment buildings materialized to house the swell of new urbanites.

typewriters, Washington DC, c. 1917

Type-writers, Washington D.C., 1917

While poetry best expressed the feelings of a lost generation, the rest of the arts diverged between the popular (jazz, movies, cartooning), and the esoteric (atonal music, Dadaism, expressionism.) In most Western countries, women were enfranchised during the War or shortly after armistice. The postwar surplus of young women caused by the wartime loss of young men left fewer marriage prospects, creating a world of maiden aunts in dead-end jobs, and good-time seeking ‘flappers’.

As for fashion, the War introduced the trench coat and wristwatch as staples into men’s wardrobes, and for women, the introduction of disposable sanitary products made life easier. Decorum subsided – the top hat and trained gown were all but gone for the most formal occasions. The War made women’s fashion practical, freeing limbs to move about unimpeded by floor sweeping skirts and long-line corsets. Dress became modern and its design and accessorizing became the new elitism – the age of the designer was born.

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