The Soldiers’, Sailors’ and Airmen’s Families Association (SSAFA) is the United Kingdom’s oldest national military charity; today it has 100 branches and supports 50,000 cases per annum. However, in 1914 it had 1,100 branches and by the end of that year it supported over 1,000,000 cases, at a cost of £1,000,000. SSAFA was the organisation (along with the Royal Patriotic Fund) to which the British state turned at the outbreak of the First World War, to help it support an unprecedented number of servicemen’s families and dependents. Yet, in spite of its central role during the war, especially in 1914-16, very little is known about it in either the academic of public spheres.
To date my research, which has evolved from my work on army wives and the military philanthropy of the Crimean War and the development of the Garrison Needlework Associations in the United Kingdom between 1858 and 1873, includes an original and in depth study of one County Division of SSAFA during the war (albeit confined to 1914). Presently I am in the preliminary stages of developing this research from the micro to the macro. The aim of my current project is to produce a detailed history of the entire charity from 1914 to 1923, using the neoteric methodology advocated by Senia Pašeta, Adrian Gregory and Catriona Pennell in their Great War studies – a social military history of the entire United Kingdom. My project will give a detailed account of how the war affected military families in the United Kingdom of 1914-18 and thereafter through the prism of SSAFA and what problems the charity had to overcome and how it did so. It will also interrogate where the charity fits into the wider responses of British and Irish society to the needs of servicemen and their families during the conflict, but also the changing public perceptions of the same and their relationship with the state.
My project seeks to rectify the substantial omission that still exists regarding references to and analysis of servicemen’s families, and also the charities that supported them, in the historiography (and popular history) of the First World War, both in Ireland and the United Kingdom. This gap persists in spite of a large amount of research having been undertaken over the past two decades on the organisation of people on the home front as part of the total war, especially women. Although this project does not propose to rectify this issue entirely it does, like my Dublin study before it, seek to add a new chapter to the historiography and broaden the research and understanding of the response of both Irish and British societies to the Great War.