Demobilisation After the First World War

The huge task of returning soldiers to their homes

In November 1918 the British Army consisted of almost 3.8 million men. It was impossible for them all to go home at once when the war ended. Demobilising a vast conscript army was a huge task and took time to achieve. Therefore British government began drawing up its demobilisation plans in August 1917, amid concerns about the impact of returning soldiers on labour relations, particularly given the context of the Russian Revolution.


The British Army still had obligations to fulfil in peacetime, so those soldiers of the regular army who had signed up for a set period of time remained until their period of service was complete. Generally speaking, men with necessary industrial skills were sent home quickly. Those who had volunteered early in the war were given priority, and those conscripted late for example, those who had turned 19 in 1918 were demobilised last. However, most of the men who served were back home by the end of 1919.


Soldiers leaving the army were given a Certificate of Employment, like the one given to William Woodcock (pictured above), which showed what they had done in the army and gave them a reference for their conduct. Soldiers also underwent a medical and were able to claim a pension, or a proportion of one, if the medical examiners agreed that they had been disabled by an injury they sustained on active service. Soldiers were also given a ration book, a railway ticket to a station near their home and were entitled to either a clothing allowance or a suit of plain civilian clothes.


Once back home, former soldiers had to fit back into civilian life. Some, like Gunner H. Cook (see certificate pictured right), were lucky and could go back to the jobs they had before the war. Others had to look for work. Women workers soon found that they were expected to give up their jobs to the returning men, and families who had not been together for many years had to make a new life. Some individuals, and some families, never recovered.

See teachers' notes page for curriculum links, further images and discussion and activity ideas.


Civilian - a person who is not an active member of the military armed forces or the police

Conscript - a person who is forced to enrol for military service

Demobilising - disbanding; discharging from military service

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