The overwhelming success of the commemorative poppy installation at the Tower of London has highlighted the enduring public sympathy for those killed during the First World War. Meanwhile, the recent handing over of Camp Bastion in Afghanistan has drawn media attention towards the veterans of more recent conflicts. Last month the BBC led with the news that medical experts had described care for UK veterans as ‘flawed’, despite the presence of the 2011 Armed Forces Covenant.

This apparent contradiction between the crowds at the Tower remembering the dead of historical wars, and the current controversies over the care of those who have survived more recent ones, reminded me of my own work on disabled veterans in the first half of the twentieth century. The most striking parallel can be seen with Britain’s victory parade of 1919, in which disabled veterans were not invited to march. Indeed, although veterans were promised a ‘land fit for heroes’ and abundant rewards for the sacrifices they had made, even the most severely disabled veterans often received barely enough to live on. (1) Seth Koven, who has studied the experiences of disabled veterans of the First World War, explains this contradiction following the Great War: ‘Societies in Western Europe and North America, not just Great Britain, attempted to accommodate the political and emotional demand to memorialize those who sacrificed their lives or limbs for the country. At the same time, post-war reconstruction required that societies allow themselves to forget the wounds of war so that these could begin to close, to be concealed.’ (2)

Indeed, memory politics can be key in determining the way disabled veterans are treated in peacetime. In Spain following the civil war between 1936 and 1939, disabled veterans who had fought for the victorious Francoist army were granted access to various privileges and benefits. In contrast, those who had fought for the defeated Republican forces received no such support. In the case of Britain following the Great War, where, unlike Spain, the majority of citizens subscribed to the same war narrative – i.e. that the war was a defensive one against a foreign enemy – a lack of care for disabled veterans may simply have been down to public sympathy waning as time went on, as the sight of amputees became normalised. (3)

Of course, economic factors also played a role in restricting veterans’ access to benefits. Most countries involved in the conflict experienced economic hardship following World War One, and even Weimar Germany – which tried to implement an ambitious benefits and rehabilitation policy towards disabled veterans, spending up to 20% of its budget on war victims pensions – was forced to cut back during the Great Depression. However, in Britain, post-WWI pension committees seemed to go out of their way to limit claimants’ access to state support. The statements of ex-servicemen brought before committees were ‘considered lies unless they [could] be proved up to the hilt; he [was] never given any benefit of doubt; and every possible snare cunningly laid by red tape and officialdom [was] used to the fullest extent to prejudice the pensioner’s case.’ (4) Consequently, philanthropists and charitable bodies, not the British State, controlled the vast majority of major initiatives aimed at improving the lives of disabled ex-servicemen, such as the pioneering artificial limb-fitting centre at Roehampton.

Such scepticism was particularly acute for veterans suffering with mental injuries. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was not officially recognised by the American Psychiatric Association until 1980, and previous terms used to refer to mental illness in war are revealing of contemporary attitudes towards veterans with ‘invisible’ wounds. The term ‘Shell shock’ was often favoured by soldiers as it linked their condition to tangible, external causes, thus protecting them from accusations of malingering or inherent weakness. In contrast, terms such as ‘war neurosis’ and ‘hysteria’ carried decidedly feminine connotations, and implied that the sufferer was naturally of a weak disposition psychologically. If an individual was already mentally weak before his experience of battle, there could be significant implications when it came to applying for a pension in the post-war. Many psychiatrists, such as Robert Gaupp (d. 1953) and Alfred Hoche (d.1943) in Germany, even argued that generous pension policies could cause hysteria epidemics, an idea reflected in the use of terms such as ‘pension neurosis’ or ‘secondary gain’.

Such large-scale state scepticism towards mentally and physically disabled veterans would no longer be politically acceptable in the present age; a recent Channel 4 documentary provided a stark contrast between the facilities available to present-day ex-servicemen and those accessible to veterans of the Great War. Nonetheless, the presence of charitable organisations such as Help for Heroes and the Royal British Legion suggests that British veterans’ reliance on charitable organisations is not so detached from post-WWI Britain as we might like to think.

1. Deborah Cohen, The War Come Home: Disabled Veterans in Britain and Germany, 1914-1939, (California, 2001), p. 4.

2. Seth Koven, ‘Remembering and Dismemberment: Crippled Children, Wounded Soldiers, and the Great War in Great Britain’, The American Historical Review 99 (4), p. 1168.

3. Joanna Bourke, Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain and the Great War, (London, 1996), p. 60.

4. Ibid., p. 61.

Stephanie Wright has recently completed an MA in Modern History at the University of Sheffield and is now beginning a PhD looking at disabled veterans of the Spanish Civil War.

Photo by Andrew on Flickr, used under aCC BY-NC 2.0 licence.

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Stephanie Wright

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