July will mark 100 years exactly since the beginning of the First World War – a battle that witnessed global carnage on a scale few could have imagined. Britain, for its part, lost just under a million young lives (over 2% of its population), and worldwide an estimated 16-65 million people were killed before the so-called Great War ended, mercifully, in November 1918. It is unequalled in this country’s history – even by World War II – for sheer devastation visited upon the populace, and it is beyond sobering to think of the heartbreak, devastation and emptiness those left behind must have suffered.
There is a new wave of historians who now question how savvy Britain’s decision to enter war really was, given its dominance, at the time, in naval and financial terms, and that particular debate rages on between the Michael Goves and Rowan Williamses of this world. But facts are facts, and Britain’s war effort was one that involved an entire nation. It cost us £3,251,000,000 (or about £160,000,000,000 in modern terms) and all but bankrupted the country. By 1918, the manufacture of bullets alone cost Britain £3.8 million every single day.
All that money didn’t come from nowhere. It came from taxes. It came from war bonds. It came from international loans. And it came from good old-fashioned fundraising.
Let’s be clear: fundraising and charitable volunteering is a rather under-reported component of Britain’s war effort, but it had a frankly enormous impact on its outcome. Peter Grant, City University professor and author of Philanthropy and Voluntary Action in the First World War, reports that First World War fundraising in this country amounted to an incredible £75 million (roughly £3.6 billion now), and that’s excluding the value of donated goods for troops comforts and hospitals, itself accounting for another £20-30 million. He speculates that the total value of donations might even have been as high as £150 million.
And that – in an era when a pint of beer cost one new penny and the Prime Minister’s annual salary was £5,000 – is a simply extraordinary sum.
Around 1.6 million Brits – 1.2 million women and 400,000 men – regularly gave their time and efforts to charitable causes during the war, a huge number of people that underscores what a country-wide effort the Great War swiftly became.
There was little – either here in Britain or at the front line – that these altruistic souls didn’t affect in some way. Notes Doctor Grant: ‘Hundreds of thousands of them provided food and drink often within range of the enemy guns, knitted ‘comforts’, collected funds, visited the wounded, acted as part-time police, wrote letters to prisoners, sold flags, and organised committees and a thousand other activities.’
In fact, Britain’s people responded with a vigour and selflessness that was on a far larger scale than anything that had come before.
By the time the war ended there were a remarkable 18,000 or so more active charities than the 35,000 that already existed when it started (there are, 100 years later, some 180,000 in England and Wales today). There were nascent non-profits for every war-specific cause imaginable, from eye injuries sustained in battle to the relatives of conscientious objectors. So virulent was their growth that government began to regulate the charitable sector for the very first time.
Perhaps the most notable of all of them was the National Relief Fund, founded by the then Prince of Wales just days after the outbreak of war to help poorer UK families whose men had been called up as reserves. It raised an eye-popping £5 million (about $490 million today) from voluntary contributions in the first year of its existence alone, and arguably set a tone of national philanthropic unity that would last for the duration of the conflict ahead. Did appeals like this – that relied heavily on public figures doing the asking via channels like the national media – set a precedent for certain kinds of ambassador (or celebrity) fundraising that persist to this day? I think there’s a strong case to make.
In truth, non-profits fundraising during WW1 couldn’t really fail: because at the very core of any appeal for help that organisations like the NRF, RSPCA, YMCA, British Red Cross, or St. Dunstan’s made was the essential and inescapable fact that, no matter what the magnitude of the contribution a donor or volunteer made, and no matter how selfless any act of kindness might be, there would, by definition, always be someone making a bigger sacrifice.
Namely, the two and a half million British men who had volunteered themselves – and who were willing to risk their very survival – to fight during four-plus years of conflict.
In truth, they were making the greatest – and, arguably, most courageous – donation of them all.
And one third of them would never, ever come home.
Huge thanks go to Doctor Peter Grant for allowing me to use stats and insight that inform his book- Philanthropy and Voluntary Action in the First World War. It’s a read I heartily recommend.