‘Wife does everything for him’: The role of the domestic caregiver and the disabled Great War veteran

‘Wife does everything for him’: The role of the domestic caregiver and the disabled Great War veteran

Dr Michael Robinson (University of Liverpool) examines the crucial role of caregivers – typically female relatives – in the rehabilitation of First World War veterans.

At the ‘What Tommy Did Next’ conference, held at the University of Edinburgh in March 2017, it was noted by the keynote speaker, Professor Jay Winter, that much more work needs to be done regarding women and their post-Armistice experiences. One critical aspect is their role as domestic carers for British ex-servicemen who were disabled as a result of war service.[1] Discussing the homecoming of disabled British Army veterans with broken bodies and shattered minds, Michael Roper wrote that ‘their loved ones bore the cost’ which remains ‘a cost largely hidden from public view’.[2] Although such a view has merit, historians can still attempt to unpack this subject with a closer reading of individual ‘PIN 26’ pension files currently held in the National Archives in London.[3] As Julie Anderson, has noted: ‘Due to the difficulties inherent in the study of women’s role in war, historians have produced innovative ways to explore wartime experiences of them.’[4] The same principle applies to a post-war context, and this blog seeks to provide an insight into their post-war role as domestic caregivers via an individual case study of Irishman P.J. O’Ryan.

Private O’Ryan fought on the Western Front during the First World War. Following his demobilisation and return home to Ireland, O’Ryan’s pension records describe him as being unable to walk more than five miles without experiencing pain due to a gunshot wound he attained on active service. While it was noted by assessment officials that his mental ‘condition appears to vary from time to time’, his medical reports describe a nervous and reclusive man who avoided large crowds, suffered from ‘battle dreams’ with accompanying ‘nervous signs’ such as tremulous limbs, a chronic spasm in his neck, and a rapid pulse. O’Ryan’s medical reports denote that he was deemed suitable for institutionalisation with the Ministry of Pensions offering to provide his maintenance grant. This measure was avoided because of the assistance provided him by his wife, Mary Josephine O’Ryan.[5] O’Ryan’s example correlates with Barham’s thesis: ‘Why did some people manage to take the route of relative independence in a domestic setting, rather than complete dependence in an asylum? The answer almost invariably is a good woman, typically a wife, but also a mother, a sister, or sister-in-law’.[6] Perhaps unsurprisingly, divorce rates rose transnationally in many combatant nations in the years following the Armistice.[7] However, divorce was very much a middle-class option in the inter-war years in Britain, and it was still viewed in Victorian terms in wider society.[8] There was further difficulty in acquiring divorce in Ireland. There was no mechanism for divorce in the new Irish Free State, and it was subsequently banned in the 1937 Constitution.

O’Ryan continually attested to his wife’s caregiving during the inter-war period: ‘If it was not for his wife he couldn’t carry on at all…Cannot bear being left alone. Wife does everything for him’. In addition to spending long periods unable to leave his home, it was noted that his wife dealt with O’Ryan’s correspondence and finances, including his pension, and that she even assisted with his secretarial occupation at his local golf club. The impact this dependency had on O’Ryan’s sense of masculinity was potentially catastrophic in a paternalistic society where husbands, not wives, were supposedly the independent breadwinner. As late as 1963, O’Ryan stressed: ‘I am very dependent on my wife’. While it is noted that Patrick and Mary had three children together, there is no mention of their domestic care-giving arrangements although it is not unreasonable to assume Patrick’s mental illness placed further burdens on Mary’s parenting duties.[9]

Ultimately, this blog wishes to recognise the domestic caregiver and their crucial role in assisting the post-war care of the disabled Great War veteran across England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Indeed, it is possible that their experiences varied across the ‘four nations’. My previous research into the Irish Free State demonstrates that the post-war rehabilitation of disabled Great War veterans, and their attempts to reintegrate back into civil society, differed from Britain and was heavily dependent on its distinctive socio-economic and political context.[10] As we approach the centenary of the Armistice, there is an ideal opportunity to undertake more research into this subject and to disseminate it to the wider public.

[1] Jessica Meyer has published important work on this area. See, for example, “Not Septimus Now’: Wives of Disabled Veterans and Cultural Memory of the First World War in Britain’, Women’s History Review, vol. 13, no. 1 (2004), pp 117-138. 

[2] Michael Roper, The Secret Battle: Emotional Survival in the Great War (Manchester, 2009), p. 295.

[3] The ‘PIN 26’ series is organised by pension type and then by alphabet. With every fiftieth file kept for archival purposes, 22,2756 individual files regarding pension awards have survived which represents just two-per-cent of the pensions awarded as a result of disablement.

[4] Julie Anderson, War, Disability and Rehabilitation in Britain: “Soul of a Nation” (Manchester, 2011), p. 155

[5] NA (PIN 26/22244), O’Ryan Pension File.

[6] Peter Barham, Forgotten Lunatics of the Great War (New Haven, 2004), p. 340.

[7] Jay Winter, ‘Families’ in Jay Winter (ed.), The Cambridge History of the First World War: Volume 3: Civil Society (Cambridge, 2014), p. 50.

[8] Barham, Forgotten Lunatics of the Great War, p. 342.

[9] NA (PIN 26/22244), O’Ryan Pension File.

[10] See “Nobody’s children?’: the Ministry of Pensions and the treatment of disabled Great War veterans in the Irish Free State, 1921–1939’ in Irish Studies Review, vol. 25, no. 3 (2017), pp 316-335.

Dr Michael Robinson is an early career researcher interested in the history of disability. He was awarded his PhD at the University of Liverpool in January 2017. A journal article taken from the second chapter of his PhD, entitled “Nobody’s children?’: the Ministry of Pensions and the treatment of disabled Great War veterans in the Irish Free State, 1921–1939’ was recently published in Irish Studies Review. He is currently in the process of adapting his thesis for publication as a monograph, and was awarded a Scouloudi Historical Funding Award by the Institute of Historical Research to help achieve this.

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