CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1 The centenary of the First World War saw a flowering of commemorative ceremonies and various other activities focused on the conflict: mass digitization of archives, international symposia, scholarly articles and books, popular exhibitions, etc. [1] All benefited from the increased attention brought by the anniversary, although this surge of activity made few novel contributions to a historiography whose renewal began in the 1990s. Particularly, the rise of a cultural history attentive to the practices and perceptions of individuals, private life, and representations contributed to the development of historical research ‘au ras du sol’ (at the ground level), focused on understanding how men and women experienced the war—at the front or far behind it, in the factories or in the fields, alone or with family. [2] This collective volume is firmly situated within this current of research. Drawing on the latest advances in historiography (for example, in the study of epistolary exchanges in the first chapter), it strives to maintain a balance between different approaches: micro and macro; quantitative and qualitative; historical, sociological, and demographic.

2 The centenary of the conflict was also an important moment for pragmatic reasons. As the editors point out, it contributed to the lifting of restrictions on access to many individual archives (military, pension and veterans’ files, vital records, etc.) in various European countries previously protected by privacy laws. This large wave of newly available archival material contributed greatly to improving our understanding of the effects of war on ordinary lives.

3 The book’s precise, well-documented introduction outlines the state of knowledge on gender relations and family structures before, during, and after the First World War. It places the book in the context of the classical question of continuity or rupture, particularly regarding the war’s possible role in women’s emancipation and the emergence of new values. Unsurprisingly, the book concludes that, overall, conservative forces dominated and, at least as far as demographic structures are concerned, the war was no more than a ‘blip’ in world history (p. 13). But as the various chapters show, the larger picture is more nuanced. An account can also be given emphasizing the resilience and adaptability of societies in the face of such a massive shock. It is regrettable that, despite its stated ambitions, the work is highly centred on a handful of Western European countries. Out of 11 chapters, just as many are devoted to Belgium (three) as to the whole of Eastern Europe (one chapter on Poland, one on Russia, and one on Albania). Italian historiography, with its profound transformations in recent decades, is absent.

4 The book’s relatively heterogeneous chapters are grouped into three parts devoted to different aspects of ‘the impact of World War I’. The first deals with the conflict’s effects on couples and gender relations. It highlights the importance of the maintenance of ties between spouses, including during the conflict, when wives recounted the harshness of daily life in wartime and kept their husbands informed about their children’s health and academic progress, while husbands described the routine and the difficulties of life in the trenches. Regarding the labour market, the analyses presented in the book confirm what we already knew for France: that women’s increased access to employment was a temporary episode and did not survive the armistice. In this domain as in others, the war really only represented a ‘parenthesis’. The second part sets out to describe the disturbances in the structure of marriages caused by the conflict. It extends and completes Louis Henry’s classic article on France, [3] and shows how marriage practices were modified (or adapted) during and after the war.

5 The third and most original part of the book deals with the question of population mixing induced by troop movements, the presence of occupying troops, and the situations of prisoners of war. The book emphasizes that, contrary to a received idea that remains dominant today, most prisoners (more than 80% in 1917) were not interned in camps but put to work to compensate for labour shortages. This led to interactions that could go as far as marriage, which prisoners used as a means of escape and a survival strategy, as shown by the case of German prisoners of war in Yekaterinburg (Russia). Conversely, in areas where mixed marriage existed before the war—as in Belgium, with its small German-speaking community—the war brought a sharp drop in mixed marriages. These marriages were frowned upon by society and the public authorities, who often sought to prevent them. In the same period, Belgium saw an increase in single mothers, concentrated in areas that saw the presence in large numbers of German soldiers, which tends to corroborate the idea that these children resulted from relationships formed during the war. In communities close to the German trenches, these children represented up to 20% of total births.

6 This book helps to update our knowledge of matrimonial structures and gender relations in Europe in the early 20th century. It brings historians and demographers into dialogue around an extremely varied set of sources and methods, demonstrating the high quality of current research.


  • [1]
    In France, one example among many others is the online publication of some 1.4 million files on soldiers who died during the conflict and the associated collaborative indexing operation ‘1 jour – 1 poilu’ (1 day – 1 infantryman):
  • [2]
    See the analysis of the evolution of the massive and still growing historiography of the war in Winter J., Prost A., 2005, The Great War in History: Debates and Controversies, 1914 to the Present, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • [3]
    Henry L., 1966, Perturbations de la nuptialité résultant de la guerre 1914-1918, Population, 21(2), 273–332.
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