When trying to think of an interesting World War I topic to start my primary source search for I decided that the impact of the war on life at home would be a good choice. Most of the history classes I have taken have only touched on how things at home were affected and focused more on what was happening in the actual war itself. After searching through a couple different books in the library and looking at different results on the Internet, I was able to find two sources that gave me some insight into what life was like for people that were not off fighting in the war in two different countries. I have never really used primary sources before, so I found it to be a really interesting and different way to learn about what was going on at the time. I thought it was helpful to get my information from something other than a textbook to help me reach an understanding of how things really were during World War I. Through my research I found that people in two different countries both had to go through struggles and make different sacrifices to get through them.
The first primary source that I found was a book in the library titled Among the Ottomans. The book contains a collection of diaries from a woman in Turkey named Mrs. Marie Lyster. Marie Lyster is a woman whose husband and two sons were off fighting the war, leaving her at home to care for her elderly mother. The diary entries gave great insight into how hard both she and the people around her struggled during the hard times. Through the tone of her writing as time went on it also became very apparent that those struggles had taken a great toll on her. Her struggle was apparent from the very first entry, where she complains of the extremely high prices of food and how people must go hungry in an attempt to conserve food and money. However, one of the quotes that stuck with me most pertaining to her hunger and the high food prices comes over a year later in the diaries when she states “we have not eaten meat for ten days, nor have many like us. I must admit that I miss it, but who can afford 43pts for lamb, 36 for beef and 48 for mutton? Fish is also out of the question. It would be like eating gold. We have had no water for four days; we only have it one of two days a week” (Lyster 19). I felt that this quote was when the lack of food and water needed to survive was most evident in her writings. I also thought that this lack of food and high prices foreshadowed how the empire was getting ready to collapse a few years, as it showed a society full of poverty and hunger. It was also very obvious that food prices continued to get worse, as a few months later she states how she looked back to the beginning of her diary and was amused by the bread prices she complained about, explaining that they are now four times as much.
Another thing that was shown throughout my readings was the effect that the struggling times had on Marie Lyster, and I’m sure many of her fellow citizens. Throughout the three years of diary entries it is clear in the tone of her writing that she is continuously becoming more and more exhausted. Early in her entries, she spoke more of family and her day-to-day personal life. As times became harder for her, she spoke less of those things and more of how she had no money, no food, or what was happening in the war and how it was becoming increasingly difficult for her to keep in good spirits. Towards the end of her entries, she even states that “these four years have tried me; Alfred [her husband] will find that I have no go in me; I feel very limp and indifferent to everything” (Lyster 63). This quote shows that she, and I’m sure many other people around her, have almost completely lost their will to go on as a result of the hunger and poverty. One last thing about her mood throughout the diaries is the way it ends. She seems to be in a bit higher spirits when the war is over, but then the entries stop after that which made me wonder if it was because things did not get much better around her and they continued to take a toll on her high spirits.
The final thing that I found really interesting while reading Lyster’s diaries was how different things are from today pertaining to how unknowing Lyster was about what was happening in the war. Some of the diary entries made me realize how lucky we are to have the technology we do today that allows us to receive news much more quickly than they did during World War I. In one entry, Marie writes about she could not go out during the day and nobody came to see her, so she had no idea what was going on with the war. In another entry after they had a night alert, she tells how the papers do not write about them and explain so the truth leaks out in bits, which I would assume is news also mixed with rumors and a little speculation as well. Entries like that made me realize just how lucky we are today to have something like the Internet, where we can get news quickly and conveniently so we can know when something important happens in a more timely, almost instantaneous manner. The lack of easy access to news during that time also made me understand her fear of if her husband or sons were still alive, as it could take weeks for her to find out if something were to happen.
The second primary source that I found was a photograph from Coventry, England during World War I. It shows a group of women pushing wheelbarrows full of what appears to be some sort of rocks, but it was hard to tell because the image was black and white. The women were working on building the railway while the men were off fighting the war. The women all gave off a tough impression and looked very tired, as I’m sure some of them also had families at home to raise while they try to keep the workforce running smoothly with the workers away at war. I also found the attire of the women very interesting. They were all wearing dresses while they worked on the railroad instead of some sort of work uniform or even something more practical for manual labor. I felt this photograph was a great example of a different side of the struggle that was not really portrayed in Among the Ottomans. It shows how along with the hunger and poverty, the people left at home still had to do their best to continue the day-to-day operations of the workforce. It also foreshadows how times are changing for women throughout the rest of the 1900s as they got a change to emerge from the role of caretaker or homemaker and become more equal in society.
Through examining both of my primary sources, I was given some really unique insight into what life was like for the people at home during World War I that I would not likely have been able to get from any history textbook. Among the Ottomans gave me a look into what it was like to be a part of society in a declining empire, while the photograph gave me a look into how women stepped up to help out while their husbands, fathers, or sons were away fighting the war and protecting their country. As for the preservation of the two primary sources, I had no concerns about the photograph because there is no way to really partially conserve a photograph. It either still exists or it does not. However, the diaries I was a little curious about. In the introduction, the editor, Ian Lyster, who is the grandson of Marie Lyster, states that he cut out some of the entries to spare the reader from having to read too many family details. This may make it a more convenient read and may not have really taken too much important information away from the reader, but there is also still the chance that something important was taken out by the editor. This made me realize how much more difficult it is for written text to be preserved throughout history, as bits and pieces of it can be taken out without it really being obvious to the reader that the original work is not all there.
Lyster, Marie, Henry Newbolt Lyster, and Ian Lyster. AMONG THE OTTOMANS: Diaries from Turkey in World War I. LONDON: I.B. TAURIS, 2011. Print.
Women “navvies” work on railway building in Coventry, England. Digital Image. CNN. CNN. 2 July 2014. Web. 22 November 2015.
– Jonathan Samuelsen