Civilian Labor and Warfare

Military forces often relied on civilians to fulfill labor and support demands, obtaining weapons, food, and other essential items to enable combat troops to focus on warfare.


Military forces often relied on civilians to fulfill labor and support demands, obtaining weapons, food, and other essential items to enable combat troops to focus on warfare. Civilian laborers built and reinforced structures to help troops withstand enemy assaults and prepare offensive maneuvers. Civilian workers represented both voluntary employees and people forced into labor. In the early twenty-first century, many historians analyzed how occupation forces had coerced or overpowered ethnic groups to perform work to achieve military goals. Some scholars evaluated how gender and race affected civilians seeking wartime employment. Economic and political historians considered civilian laborers’ impact on industrial production and legislation during wars.Civilians;in warfare[warfare]Military supportCivilians;in warfare[warfare]Laborers, civilianMilitary support


Civilian laborers frequently filled manpower shortages at businesses and factories when peacetime workers left for military service. Civilians’ work mostly ensured ample production of items, especially weaponry, crucial to military successes. However, fluctuations in civilians’ work ethic and inconsistent supplies of laborers impacted the quantity and quality of the military equipment civilian workers manufactured. Some civilian specialists, such as blacksmiths or mechanics (depending on the era in which warfare occurred), applied their professional skills to benefit military troops. Sometimes civilians forced to work for occupying forces sabotaged projects assigned them, hindering enemy troops’ effectiveness. Civilian laborers also completed reconstruction work to restore areas damaged by warfare.

History of Civilian Labor and Warfare

Many aspects of civilian labor associated with warfare have been universal in different eras. Throughout the history of warfare, civilian laborers supplemented military endeavors in what often became a symbiotic relationship. Military forces relied on civilians to accomplish necessary support services that enabled troops to concentrate on their orders and not be distracted by time-consuming activities such as securing food. Civilians usually wanted military forces to protect them from enemies during wars. Civilian labor varied from formal, organized systems monitored and financed by governments and military leaders to assistance offered spontaneously when citizens encountered military troops in need of supplies and support.

Incentives for voluntary civilian laborers included patriotism and a sense of duty to their leaders or country. Most workers welcomed the opportunity to help relatives, friends, and neighbors fighting in wars by manufacturing war materials useful to military forces. Warfare offered many civilians income sources to support their families. Wartime civilian workers faced risks and suffered injuries and casualties both in home-front industries and during battlefield assignments. Civilian laborers sometimes became prisoners of war or slaves, depending on the era and conqueror when they lived. After warfare concluded, some civilian laborers retained work similar to their wartime employment, while others became unemployed when veterans returned home.

Ancient World

Power struggles between leaders of ancient civilizations often provoked military conflicts. Histories of ancient warfare, some of them written by those who were contemporary with the events–including Homer, Thucydides, and Plutarch–and biblical passages described activities of warriors defending their communities or engaging in offensive maneuvers to seize land from rivals. Most accounts omitted details concerning individuals performing labor to assist troops, but generalizations about civilian workers suggested how they participated in warfare. Fortifications;civilian laborCivilians assisted their communities’ military forces by reinforcing shelters, stockpiling supplies, and building roads, trenches, and bridges. Using soil and rocks, civilian laborers constructed defensive structures, including walls around cities and towers for soldiers to post outlooks to detect approaching enemies. Civilian-built barricades protected troops from assaults. Civilian laborers in Assyria and other civilizations aided soldiers by preparing weapons and equipment for sieges. The Bible;SolomonSolomon (king of Israel)Bible describes how Solomon forced people he conquered to work to supplement his military resources.

When soldiers traveled to pursue military objectives, their community, including family members and skilled craftspersons and artisans, often followed them. The civilian laborers accompanying Macedonian leader Alexander the GreatAlexander the Great;civilian laborersAlexander the Great (356-323 b.c.e.) on his extensive military expeditions were among the best-documented ancient noncombatant workers serving in wartime. A diverse labor group assisted Alexander and his soldiers. Alexander arranged for royal pages to serve him. He ordered servants, known as ServantsEktaktoi (servants)ektaktoi, to monitor his troops’ baggage and the livestock transporting it. In addition to overseeing the movement of supplies, the ektaktoi set up tents to shelter troops. Most soldiers provisioned themselves with personal clothing and weapons. Sutlers sold drinks, food, or services to troops not otherwise available. Cooks prepared meals for large groups.

Alexander hired Engineers;Alexander the Greatengineers to create weaponry, including catapults, for specific battlefield needs or strategies. Blacksmiths and carpenters contributed their talents to fashion metals and wood into military equipment. Physicians treated battle wounds and sicknesses. Civilians assisted in burying casualties. Some civilian workers met Alexander’s intellectual and spiritual demands by serving as historians, scientists, and philosophers to share their observations and insights regarding warfare, foreshadowing the roles of military chaplains, tacticians, and journalists accompanying troops.

Various ancient civilizations’ military leaders, particularly those of the Romans and Egyptians, benefited from civilian laborers performing noncombat tasks similar to those provided to Alexander and his soldiers. Many of the roles played by ancient civilian laborers during warfare, including civilians working as spies to obtain military intelligence, continued to be fundamental to military forces in other eras.

Medieval World

Advances in military organization and weapons technology affected medieval civilian laborers impacted by warfare, who engaged in work resembling that of their ancient counterparts. In SyriaSyria, medieval towns were divided into zones to which people were assigned based on their employment status. Zone leaders compensated noncombatant civilians for such services as providing horses for cavalry and transportation, supplying weapons, or performing administrative duties. In 718, when the UmayyadsUmayyad army targeted Constantinople, approximately twelve thousand noncombatant civilian laborers accompanied soldiers into that city. The workers tended mules and camels and distributed food and weapons.

In medieval Europe, monarchs urged civilians to increase Livestock breedinglivestock breeding for consistent production of swift cavalry mounts and sturdy draft horses for military troops to attain advantages over enemies. Farmers maintained herds to ensure consistent supplies of livestock used for transportation and sustenance. During the late tenth century, Weapons manufacturing;medievalweapons manufacturing also experienced changes. Craftspersons, in addition to making more weapons, offered warriors improved designs and varying types to enhance their odds of victory in combat. Regions acquired notoriety for particular weapons, such as Saxony’s swords. Medieval Ironworking;medievalironworkers throughout Europe produced weapons not only for their communities but also to sell to soldiers elsewhere, enhancing local and regional economies.

From the eleventh through thirteenth centuries, civilian laborers accompanied Crusaders traveling to the Holy Land. By the fourteenth century, Metalworkingweapons manufacturing by civilian workers had expanded, and laborers quickly produced quantities of weapons because they used standard designs and materials. During the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453)Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), feudal military forces utilized peasants for such basic labor needs as gathering forage. Sources estimated that peasant laborers formed half of French feudal armies. In the fifteenth century, iron shortages affected civilian weaponry production in Asia, where previously abundant mining resources had ensured plentiful armories. Gunsmiths cast guns from alternate metals, including bronze. Laborers also made bullets and mixed explosives for gunpowder. They assembled wheeled vehicles to transport large weapons to battlefields.

Warfare waged by the Turkic leaderTamerlane (Turkic leader)Tamerlane, also known as Timur (1336-1405), affected civilian laborers in medieval Iranian communities. ServantsGullughchi (servants)Gullughchi were civilian servants who performed such tasks as guarding highways, delivering messages, and tending falcons. Camp followers of Tamerlane’s armies consisted of such laborers as druggists, saddle makers, and shoemakers. As Tamerlane secured territory with his military forces, he seized the makers of weapons and armor, including Damascus swordsmiths, to work in Samarqand, his empire’s capital. These civilian laborers made arms and protective armor to outfit Tamerlane’s troops. Tamerlane ordered workers to construct numerous workshops and residences for armorers adjacent to his palace. Timur’s siege-warfare tactics destroyed buildings crucial to communities’ military strength, such as the citadel in Herāt. Accounts estimated that approximately seven thousand civilian workers reconstructed that structure.

In medieval Italy;weapons manufactureItaly, craftspersons were renowned for weapons they produced for military troops and horse armor, such as that made in the Milan workshop of Innocenzo da Faerno, PierInnocenzo da Faerno, PierPier Innocenzo da Faerno. In October of 1427, Carmagnola, conte diCarmagnola, conte diBussone, FrancescoFrancesco Bussone, conte di Carmagnola (c. 1385-1432) led Venetian troops at Maclodio, Battle ofMaclodio. His soldiers subdued the Milanese army, which surrendered. Carmagnola’s forces captured ten thousand soldiers and their weapons. Civilian weapons manufacturers in Milan quickly replaced the confiscated arms by producing sufficient weaponry to supply several thousand infantrymen and cavalry soldiers, enabling them to fight victoriously in later battles.

Modern World

Civilian laborers affiliated with modern warfare experienced more rigid bureaucracy, but women and racial minorities were offered increased opportunities. World War I (1914-1918)[world war 01];civilians inWorld War I presented these civilian workers temporary employment as telephone operators, clerks, and medical personnel. After invading France and Belgium in World War I, German troops forced civilians from those countries to work for various labor projects, such as transporting supplies to frontline trenches. In 1915, German military leaders ordered civilian workers to build three defensive trenches in the Flandern Stellung and build large concrete structures, which the Germans called Mannschaften Eisenbetten Understände (MEBUs). Civilian laborers placed steel in the concrete so the MEBUs could withstand artillery shells.

World War II World War II (1939-1945)[world war 02];civilians incivilian labor strengthened military forces by providing them sufficient weaponry to fight enemies effectively. In April of 1942, U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt selected Paul V. McNutt to direct the War Manpower CommissionWar Manpower Commission to oversee procuring civilian labor. Yearly, 53,750,000 U.S. civilian laborers performed work supporting wartime needs. Iconic images of Rosie the Riveter symbolized the influx of North American women into factories to construct aircraft, ships, and munitions crucial for Allied troops to defeat Axis forces. Newsreels depicted the diverse roles the civilian laborers pursued, including agricultural work. Organized labor groups, such as the Transport Workers Union of AmericaTransport Workers Union of America, discussed concerns regarding how wartime employment issues affected their members. McNutt dealt with labor strikes, security issues, and absenteeism. Military leaders frequently dismissed McNutt’s efforts because he was a civilian, and historians have criticized his administration.

When Soviet Union;civilians in warfareGerman troops invaded the Soviet Union in June, 1941, Soviet dictator Stalin, JosephStalin, JosephJoseph Stalin ordered civilians to focus on work that aided troops in what was referred to as the Great Patriotic War. To prevent Germans from disrupting industrial production, Stalin demanded that laborers relocate approximately fifteen hundred factories, steel-rolling mills, and machinery, in addition to 25 million civilian laborers and their families, to eastern areas of the Soviet Union. Voznesensky, Nikolai AlekseevichVoznesensky, Nikolai AlekseevichNikolai Alekseevich Voznesensky (1903-1950) outlined plans for evacuating industrial resources, which Council for Evacuation deputy chairman Kosygin, AlekseyKosygin, AlekseyAleksey Kosygin (1904-1980) oversaw from July through November, 1941. Enemy forces sometimes interrupted transportation by railroad and other vehicles, but eventually most designated Soviet industrial materials were moved. Civilians produced weapons and artillery in Soviet factories. An estimated 11,600 people worked at the Kirov tank factoryKirov tank factory, which was a significant contributor to Soviet military successes. Soviet workers produced 8,200 airplanes in 1941 and expanded their output to 29,900 airplanes in 1943.

German Germany;civilians in warfareyouths served mandatory two-year German Labor ServiceGerman Labor Service terms. In contrast to Allied forces’ use of voluntary civilian workers, German military leaders often relied on forced labor. Germans routinely acquired laborers from areas that troops had invaded and occupied. German military personnel also forced many people interned in concentration camps to work; labor of this sort represented one-fourth of civilian laborers working for Germans. German occupation troops also forced civilians to manufacture rope and other utilitarian objects in factories where they had previously worked in peacetime. Japanese military leaders directed forced labor of civilians in Asia to build airfields and military work to sustain troops.

In the twenty-first century, civilian laborers, representing native and international workers–many of them contractors–contributed to work related to the Iraq War. These civilians helped troops by serving in such diverse roles as translators, drivers, and bodyguards. Few civilians expressed interest in performing work associated with warfare in Afghanistan, and as a result, U.S. government officials in the spring of 2009 considered assigning military reservists to those jobs, because they had regularly practiced expertise the military needed, such as engineering, in their civilian employment.Civilians;in warfare[warfare]Laborers, civilianMilitary support

Books and Articles

  • Chamberlain, Charles D. Victory at Home: Manpower and Race in the American South During World War II. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2003. Discusses minority civilian laborers’ experiences while working in wartime industries, addressing economic, political, cultural, and labor issues.
  • Kagan, Frederick. “The Evacuation of Soviet Industry in the Wake of ‘Barbarossa’: A Key to the Soviet Victory.” Journal of Slavic Military Studies 8 (June, 1995): 387-414. This detailed account notes that historical texts often contain ideologically biased interpretations of the event, stressing that historians should consult primary sources when researching this topic.
  • Kern, Paul Bentley. Ancient Siege Warfare. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999. Comprehensive study of numerous civilizations that incorporates information about civilian laborers based on biblical references and contemporary historians’ descriptions.
  • Kratoska, Paul H., ed. Asian Labor in the Wartime Japanese Empires: Unknown Histories. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2005. A collection of essays examining twentieth century uses of civilian labor. States that historians rely on oral and archival records to chronicle these frequently overlooked workers.
  • Nicolle, David. The Age of Tamerlane. Illustrated by Angus McBride. Men-at-Arms Series 222. New York: Osprey, 2003. Refers to civilian laborers who manufactured weaponry and armor. Illustrations depict weapons and protective garments.
  • Zeiger, Susan. In Uncle Sam’s Service: Women Workers with the American Expeditionary Force, 1917-1919. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. Analyzes motivations for women to work for military forces and how those jobs presented them with both autonomy and restrictions.


Education, Textbooks, and War

Paramilitary Organizations

The Press and War


Revolt, Rebellion, and Insurgency

War’s Impact on Economies

Women, Children, and War