Our First World War history
At the outbreak of the First World War, the Government called on SSAFA to take care of the families of soldiers going to the Front. We were there for our Armed Forces family then, we're still here for them now.
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Soon after the outbreak of war, the Government called on SSAFA to support the Home Front: the families, the women and children left behind by those who went off to fight. Within weeks, SSAFA had recruited 50,000 volunteers around the country to carry out our work and fill the gap that quickly appeared in support for Forces families.
Our digitised records from the War tell a unique story about life on the Home Front. Search our records to find a place or person.
1916 - 1917 Flagbook
1918 - 1919 Flagbook
SSAFA's WW1 history
Supporting the Home Front
Within days of the outbreak of war, SSAFA was called upon to assist the Government to help ensure that families didn’t suffer hardship when the men were called up. SSAFA was brought in to provide some of the structures and services which would be automatically provided by the state today. SSAFA was the only national Service charity in existence at that time and was already a well-respected organisation, having been established in 1885.
Back in 1914, SSAFA was called SSFA - the Soldiers and Sailors Families Association - because the Royal Air Force was not formed until 1918. However, we will be referring to the charity as SSAFA consistently, when referring to our activity during World War One as well as post 1918, when the Royal Air Force was founded.
Volunteers and the National Relief Fund
Once war had been declared in 1914, SSAFA was quick to react. Within a few weeks branches throughout the land were ordered to recruit and the charity grew from 7,000 to 50,000 volunteers in a matter of months.
At the start of the war, the Government had not allocated any money for the families left behind. A charitable fund was established to take care of those on the Homefront. Known as The National Relief Fund, this struck a chord with members of the public who were quick to respond and money poured in. At the end of the first 15 months of the campaign a staggering £5 million had been raised by the National Relief Fund. This enabled SSAFA to assist more than one million people in 1914 alone.
Mrs Wood, a volunteer, said, “When the bugle call rang out …there were two sorts of recruiting going on, men answering the country’s call, and the non combatants who came in their thousands to serve under the banner of SSAFA.”
SSAFA boosts morale
The charity played a vital role in persuading the men to volunteer for war. SSAFA’s work supporting the families at home meant that men could join up knowing that their families would be looked after and not become destitute.
William Hayes Fisher was a member of SSAFA’s Executive Committee in 1914. He went on to become President of the Local Government Board and Minister of Information. He outlined SSAFA’S achievements in 1915 as:
“Homes have been maintained free from anxiety, in comfort and in decency and will so be maintained until the heroes to whom those homes belong return home.”
Fighting for Forces families
SSAFA was never afraid to fight for Forces’ families and was always ready to take on the establishment. SSAFA fought the Church and the Government to ensure that the families of unmarried partners were provided for, a very controversial position in 1914.
A forward thinking organisation
In 1914 a deputation appeared before the SSAFA council led by Reverend Wainwright, who objected to SSAFA assisting unmarried mothers. “Are our men here Christians? Are we to be helpers here of these young men to continue in a state of sin?”
Hayes Fisher replied speaking on behalf of the mothers, “My man has gone away, is called up, and has gone to fight the battles of the country. He has left me at a moments notice, leaving me with five children. I have no means of support: will you give me help? Father Wainwright says, “Certainly not, you cannot produce your marriage certificate so you will have no help. So you would let them starve.”
The resolution was defeated and SSAFA continued to support unmarried families if evidence of a relationship could be shown.
The Christmas ship
For those on the Homefront in 1914 the austerity continued but SSAFA was there to provide some relief. A ship had been sent from America, itself not involved in the conflict at the time, packed with toys for the children of the British troops and SSAFA distributed thousands of gifts to children across the UK.
Move towards the Welfare State
SSAFA was one of the first organisations to call for benefits that would be distributed universally regardless of circumstance. The introduction of the Separation Allowance, distributed by SSAFA, was the first government payment made to families as a matter of course.
SSAFA tackles homelessness
The men going off to war left a problem for many women and their children. Those families known as “on the strength”, meaning that their marriages were approved by the regiments and were able to live within the Garrison, were suddenly forced to move out as the need for accommodation for the men took precedent. Other families were the victims of landlords who attempted to make those living in tied accommodation homeless.
Miss Warren from Hampshire was typical of the sort of cases which SSAFA assisted with. Since her husband had enlisted she had no lodgings and no food and she was “so dirty that three lodging houses in Farnham refused to take her.”
Accommodation was provided for Miss Warren by SSAFA and she was given 1s 6d for her food to ensure that she did not have to walk the streets with her children.
SSAFA Nursing Division
Nurses across the world
SSAFA provided nurses in garrison towns and at ports across the nation and overseas. These nurses would provide healthcare to families while the men were way. When WW1 broke out, many of the nurses joined Voluntary Aid Detachments. Many went abroad with their detachments and served near the front lines. Others worked in hospitals and convalescent homes at home.
Relief for poor families
Relief for poor families during the war including local clothing branches collected or made clothes for the poorest families. Some of these clothes were used for military families who were returning to UK from the outposts of the British Empire. Many of these families returning from hot climates did not have appropriate clothing for the much colder British climate.
Number of recipients: Wives, children and dependents
Total cost: £.s.d.
|1914||1,281,814||£995,375 4s 0d.|
|1916||4,184||£6,327 8s 10d.|
|1917||5,622||£15,338 8s 10d.|
|1918||10,088||£32,553 16s 5d.|
|1919||39,146||£93,535 2s 2d.|