Since Malta was the most important British Fortress in the Mediterranean and home to the British Mediterranean Fleet it could not escape involvement in the First World War (1914-18). Though Malta was not a front line state the Maltese were not shielded from the horrors of war. An estimated 24,000 Maltese served with the British services and the Maltese Labour Battalion took part in the Gallipoli Campaign against Turkey. Royal Malta Artillery soldiers manufactured 68,000 hand grenades at the Dockyard for the Dardanelles army. Sixteen Maltese soldiers died in an explosion during production.
Maltese harbours hosted the British, French and Japanese fleets and teemed with activity, where all kind of military equipment, including ammunition, was warehoused. Warships and transport vessels queued for repairs at the dockyard where the workforce quadrupled to 14,000. In 1916 dockyard workers formed the earliest local trade union, the Government General Workers Union. In 1917 the union called a strike in defiance of wartime regulations.
Hospitals, barracks and some schools served as military hospitals in which some 80,000 wounded servicemen were treated. Hundreds were buried on the Island. Malta also became an internment camp for hundreds of enemy prisoners of war.
The wartime advantage of full employment was offset by deprivation of essential commodities such as wheat, flour, oil, cheese, meat, sugar and kerosene. Soaring inflation together with new taxes, introduced to offset income lost from customs duties, caused workers’ living standard to plummet.
When peace returned Malta shared in the post-war social and political unrest that plagued Europe popular expectations remained unfulfilled.
Prof J.M. Pirotta