Remembrance Day has been observed in many places around the world since the end of World War I. Also known as Poppy Day, Veterans’ Day or Armistice Day, it is intended as a memorial to members of the armed forces who have died in the line of duty. It began as a way to remember those who died in the Great War and is observed in Canada and other countries on November 11 to commemorate the end of that conflict in 1918.

As Remembrance Day is next week and as 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, many people are looking at how that war changed the world.

The First World War is often referred to as the ‘war to end all wars.’ Too bad that did not prove to be true. But it has also been called the ‘war that changed everything,’ and that is true.

World War I changed so many things that it is difficult to list them all. Borders shifted and empires crumbled. The balance of power in Europe moved away from the monarchies and the landed elite. Populations were devastated by the millions who died on and off the battlefield. Technological and industrial advances pushed forward by the necessities of war moved into commercial use.

The result was that the First World War had a significant impact on the workplace, particularly in Britain and other parts of Europe. But many changes resulting from the war were also found across the pond in North America.

One momentous change was that women officially became people. Hard to believe that they could ever have been considered anything but people, and yet they were.

In an article published in the UK’s Telegraph, writer Harry Mount called the “First World War the War that Changed Us All.” Mount wrote, “It was no coincidence that... the Eligibility of Women Act was passed in the same month as the Armistice, allowing women to be elected to Parliament. After a war that had seen the violent death of thousands of women serving their country, it would have been perverse to deny them the vote.”

It wasn’t long after World War I before women’s suffrage spread to most of the Western world. I say most because there were a few countries that had already seen the light (New Zealand in 1893) and a few who didn’t flip the switch for a long time (Switzerland in 1971).

Women’s participation in the workforce and on the front lines during the war years changed not only how they were viewed but how they viewed themselves.

In “Changing lives: Gender Expectations and Roles During and After World War One,” published on the British Library’s website, writer Susan R Grayzel asked to what extent the war challenged gender roles. In the article Grayzel asserted that “because the war destroyed so many lives and reshaped the international political order, it is understandable to view it as a catalyst for enormous changes in all aspects of life, including ideas about gender and the behaviour of women and men.” She wrote that after the war, “Some women publicly embraced new access to traditionally male occupations and had no wish to relinquish them when the war was over.”

And while many women longed to take on challenging work outside the home, other women simply had no choice in the matter. As some areas lost an entire generation of young men, marriage wasn’t always an option. In a section on post-World War I, Wikipedia shows that “So many British men of marriageable age died or were injured that the students of one girls’ school were warned that only 10% would marry. The 1921 United Kingdom Census found 19,803,022 women and 18,082,220 men in England and Wales, a difference of 1.72 million which newspapers called the ‘Surplus Two Million’. In the 1921 census there were 1,209 single women aged 25 to 29 for every 1,000 men.”

Even if employers didn’t want to hire women, they often had to since there were not enough men to fill the available jobs. But the women couldn’t be managed the same as men. Women had differing needs. Not only could they and did they become pregnant while working, they typically had young children at home.

And their family structure had also changed. Work opportunities related to rebuilding after the war had both men and women moving away from their birth places more than ever. Because of this, workers were frequently without the traditional familial support that had allowed them to spend long hours outside the home.

Grayzel wrote, “Furthermore, post-war societies were largely in mourning. The extent to which the process of rebuilding required the combined efforts of men and women in public and perhaps even more so in private shows the shared human toll of this extraordinary conflict.”

Almost everyone in the western world had been affected by the war in one way or another. For each death on or near the battlegrounds, there were several people who mourned at home. There were also all the physical and psychological limitations of returned service personnel, who had everything from missing limbs or blindness to the consequences of gas attacks or shell- shock.

Most employers had to deal with at least some of these war victims in the workplace. And while many refused to acknowledge the changing needs of their workers at first, the more socially responsible recognized that helping employees with these challenges could benefit everyone. Eventually, with societal, union and government pressure, even the reluctant had to concede to taking care of their employees in a conscientious way.

In Britain between the Wars 1918-1940, author Charles Loch Mowat explained that the experience of World War I made acceptable such major innovations as the recasting of unemployment insurance in 1920. And there were other legislative changes throughout the Western world as a result of the Great War, including ones affected wages.

A. L. Bowley, statistician and author of a number of social surveys, wrote “to raise the wages of the worst-paid workers is the most pressing social task with which the country is confronted today... it has needed a war to do it, but that task has been accomplished.”

Statistics show that the average income of working-class families rose by 10 percent between 1914 and 1920. This more than cancelled out the corresponding rise in cost-of-living. With more money came more influence in the marketplace, affecting the balance of power traditionally held only by wealthy property owners.

The post-war rebuilding process also resulted in more social interaction between the sexes and the classes, causing those hard lines to blur. And those interactions changed the balance of power further, just as the war shifted political power away from the elite. Supported by government legislation, unions and society in general, the working class was given more responsibility and authority in all areas of their lives but especially in the workplace.

Those changes accelerated a social revolution in the Western world that gave us the lives and workplaces we have today. The First World War was a devastating event, but it was also a catalyst for change.

Photo above: Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery and Memorial to the Missing is a Commonwealth War Graves Commission burial ground for the First World War in the Ypres Salient, Belgium (formerly Flanders) [Photo from]

Originally published on the GeoTalent corporate blog, November 7, 2014. This and all material on this website copyright KM Lowe and the Relative Writer unless stated otherwise.