Disabled Ex-Servicemen of the First World War: A Four Nations Approach To Their Social, Medical and Religious Care Needs.

Disabled Ex-Servicemen of the First World War: A Four Nations Approach To Their Social, Medical and Religious Care Needs

Bethany Rowley (University of Leeds) discusses the four nations dimensions of the Men, Women and Care project, which investigates the lived experiences of disabled First World War veterans and their caregivers

 One of the evident, but often forgotten, legacies that the Great War left to Britain was the unprecedented number of disabled ex-servicemen.[1] By 1929, approximately 1,600,000 former servicemen had been awarded a pension by the British government for disabilities traceable to war service.[2] For those disabled by war and for their care providers, whether this be in a social, medical or religious sense, the war did not end with the 1918 armistice. Seth Koven argues that mutilated soldiers could never forget their losses, which is why they are best able to understand the significance of shaping a four-nation remembrance of the war.[3] Yet it is only by combining the discourse of rehabilitation – which an analysis of care structures enhances – with the tangible experiences of the disabled soldiers, that the Great War’s legacy on the bodies and minds of veterans can be understood.

Led by Associate Professor of Modern British History Jessica Meyer, the ‘Men, Women and Care’ research team are therefore exploring the formal and informal structures that developed in Britain in the interwar years to provide medical and social care to the allied war disabled across the four nations and further afield. The impact of the war on individual servicemen and on wider society, including the family, clergy and the medical profession are examined. With a focus on ideas of gender, a nuanced understanding of the long-term effects of total war on both the gendered provision of social care prior to the introduction of the welfare state and developments in medical practice in the first half of the twentieth-century will emerge.

This locates the research within wider historiographic and cultural debates about the social and cultural impact of the First World War on society. It was not necessarily ‘the loved ones of the disabled veterans’ who ‘bore the cost’ of their care as Michael Roper has argued. It was not unusual for Sunday Schools to register as charities for disabled ex-servicemen and provide social and pastoral care for example, and in a medical capacity, aside from doctors and nurses, those who made and fitted artificial limbs contributed to a soldier’s rehabilitation. This five-year European Research Council funded project thus examines the variety of such care and need, which has largely remained hidden. [4]

“This leg was issued by the provisional limbs department at a Ministry of Pensions Hospital in Becketts Park, Leeds. This hospital was originally built in 1913 as a teacher training college, but like many large buildings it became a hospital following the outbreak of war, whereby 57,200 patients were treated there during the war”. Collection: Wellcome Images/ Library reference no.: Science Museum A603115

 In addition, whilst, there have been important studies into the care provided to disabled ex-servicemen across Europe by charities, and of the relationships between the State and the veteran in interwar Europe, most notably Deborah Cohen’s The War Come Home and Fiona Reid’s Broken Men, this is the first study to examine the role of institutions alongside and in relation to the informal social and medical care provided by the family. Similarities and differences between the ways families across the four nations, as well as how specific regions approached caring for disabled ex-servicemen, can be drawn. Did for example, the Catholic and Protestant influence in Northern Ireland impact upon the way veterans accessed religious charity and care when compared to England, Wales or Scotland?

Developing methodologies and analytic models for understanding the impact of war disability on the complex social and cultural relations binding the state, charitable institutions and religion together which can be applied comparatively across national boundaries, is therefore a key objective. This involves the systematic examination of the PIN26 section of the National Archives, Ministry of Pensions and Successors: Selected First World War Pensions Award Files, and the creation and development of a database of information relating to the domestic circumstances of these men and their treatment by the State.

 This database is being developed as a research tool in conjunction with the National Archives. As this involves photographing the 22,756 files within PIN26 and transcribing the data before any analysis can occur, creating the database is a painstakingly slow process. With such vast amounts of data and individuals with the same name, problems surrounding anonymization and representation have emerged. This is something which the research team are trying to resolve, particularly if a name provides insight into nationality.

Alongside PIN26 material, correspondence relating to domestic care from the archives of charitable organisations and personal narratives of disabled ex-servicemen and their families, including letters, diaries and memoirs are being examined. This will emphasise further any links between disability care for ex-servicemen and regionality, which in terms of direct comparisons between England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, very little is known.

In his recent article ‘Nobody’s Children’,  Dr Michael Robinson of Liverpool University examines the ways in which the Irish Free State differed from the British government in their approach to rehabilitating disabled ex-servicemen of the First World War back into civilian life.  He argues that the differences occur because of its unique social, economic and political context.[5] His is the closest to a four nations approach in this area.

The creation of our dataset will be able to help scholars bridge this historiographical gap by making it easier for researchers to trace regionality as well as specific individuals and disability within Pin26 as it forms a category within the database. As Jessica Meyer has argued, it is for this reason the database has international significance. As a team, we regularly blog about our research as it progresses. For updates, please visit our website: http://menwomenandcare.leeds.ac.uk/

[1] Verstraetea, Pieter, Martina Salvanteb & Julie Anderson, ‘Commemorating the disabled soldier: 1914–1940’ First World War Studies, 6 (1) (2015), pp. 1-12, p.1

[2] Mitchell, J., and G. M. Smith, Official History of the War: Medical Services: Casualties and Statistics (London: H.M, 1931), p.316; E Jones, I Palmer, S Wessely, ‘War pensions (1900-1945): changing models of psychological understanding’, The British Journal of Psychiatry, 2002 374-379, p. 374

[3] Koven S., ‘Remembering and Dismemberment: Crippled Children, Wounded Soldiers, and the Great War in Britain’, The American Historical Review, 99(4) (1994), pp. 1167-202, p. 1169.

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

[5] Robinson, Michael, ‘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.

Bethany is a PhD student at the University of Leeds. Her research examines religious charity and the experience of disabled ex-servicemen in inter-war Britain. She looks at why religion didn’t play a larger role in the rehabilitation process when it was dominant in charitable work aimed at the disabled prior to 1914, whilst considering the impact that accessing religious charity had on male identity, in relation to both the Victorian concept of ‘manliness’ and the Christian role of provider. Because of her research interests, she is a team member of the ‘Men, Women and Care’ Research Project at Leeds. This blog post is to introduce the project and its links to Four Nations History.

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