This is a short, easy accessible, book dealing with a subject very rarely highlighted when looking at the Great War of 1914-18, the practical impact on a city and its population and services.
The book deals with the Great War in chronological yearly order which charts the course of the war for Manchester from original optimism, through pessimism, before eventual relief that the war was over. Among the many topics covered throughout the book the following stand out.
The scale of volunteering in the early days was immense. War was declared on August 4th 1914. By September, around 1500 men a day were enlisting in Manchester. This willingness to volunteer had a huge impact on employment, bringing many recruitment problems. For example, forty per cent of the Manchester Corporation workforce volunteered.
The impact on the Cotton industry in Manchester was severe. After an initial upturn to supply war uniforms a combination of factors, such as the loss of trade in hostile countries, the increase in raw materials, labour supply issues, and the move to their own domestic cotton industries by other countries, meant that cotton would never again be the dominant industry it once was for Manchester.
The role of women in Manchester’s economy was transformed. They began to leave the mills and do the jobs done elsewhere by men, and in huge numbers. Despite prejudice and hostility they became general manufacturing workers, particularly in Munitions, but also in areas like transport and postal services.
The scale of the casualties, particularly after the Somme, eventually became visible and brought grief to families and strains on hospital capacity in Manchester, with new facilities having to be acquired or built.
The impact of the war on some social issues was equally dramatic. Once the war began all slum clearance and better sanitation projects in Manchester stopped. There was a cost of living crisis as prices soared due to shortages and food hoarding by the well off. Education suffered due to older children working.
Yet there were some surprising and welcome developments. When rationing was introduced, late in the war, the poorer members of society were given a well balanced diet they could not have afforded before the war. This led to the common diseases of malnutrition such as rickets, scurvy, anaemia and stunted growth being completely eradicated from Manchester.
The changing role of women in the workforce, and the increasing focus on children during the war, led to the 1918 Education Act, a further positive development. It recommended free nursery schools for children aged two to five. Manchester became one of the first local authorities to offer free nursery education to its infants.
The Great War had a major impact on Manchester. This book gives an insight into the realities of what it was like to live there during this traumatic time. It is a fascinating and informative read.