Forgotten heroes of the First World War

Historical Notes: Joanna Bourke
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The Independent Culture
THE MUTILATION of the body is intrinsic to the experience of all wars.

For British servicemen, however, bodily dismemberment reached unprecedented levels during the First World War. Neither 19th- century wars nor the grim injuries perpetrated on the human body in factories or mines were adequate preparation for the physical devastation of this war. Over 41,000 men had one or more limbs amputated during the war and another 272,000 suffered serious injuries in the arms or legs that did not require amputation.

Such high levels of amputation were due partly to the use of more effective instruments of dismemberment, such as artillery fire, hand grenades, and small firearms, but also to the problems associated with cleanliness in a period before the introduction of penicillin.

In the early years of the war, grossly mutilated servicemen were sentimentalised. Their injuries were said to be "badges of their courage" and "their proof of patriotism". The disabled soldier was "not less but more of a man" or they were "broken dolls" (as one particularly mawkish song of the time put it). The sentimentalisation of the dismembered did not last, however.

Despite emotional reminders of what would have happened had these men not given their limbs for freedom, residents proved remarkably vocal in resisting plans to build homes for disabled men in their area. As soon as the war ended, the men still undergoing treatment in hospitals suddenly discovered that their visitors were "too busy" to come.

More importantly, the Ministry of Pensions came to see its job as primarily one of limiting state liabilities. As one serviceman observed, pensioners were treated as "criminals in the dock" and "every possible snare laid by red tape was used to prejudice their case". Most upsetting of all was the tendency to treat limbless ex-servicemen as charity cases. As one disabled man reiterated, "It is not charity I want, but what I am entitled to."

Why did ex-servicemen who had suffered physical mutilation in the course of the war lose the sympathy of the public and politicians? In part, this occurred because of a widespread desire to "forget" the war as soon as possible. The ex-serviceman was subjected to a similar form of forgetfulness as the disabled child: that is, when young and novel, he was lavished with gifts, but when old and unastonishng, he went unnoticed.

In addition, the disabled soldiers could not put up a united front. Organisations representing their interests proliferated and spent much energy competing with each other. More importantly, from the 1920s, economic depression had increased the pool of the needy, while simultaneously limiting the supply of capital. Disabled organisations retrenched. Some groups of people (such as the unemployed married man with a family) were seen as more needy than the disabled soldiers.

By the mid-1920s, servicemen who had been severely injured in the war had been forgotten. With the distaste for soldiering after the war, their heroic potency on the field of battle came to be held in great disfavour. Even the increased militarisation of society from the mid-1930s failed to revive their status as warriors - rather, it further emphasised their uselessness: their crippled bodies were exempted from warfare, their technical understanding of the art of fighting was outdated, and they were prematurely aged.

In the bitter words of Harry Smith, a character in a play entitled The Unknown Warrior (published in 1923) who had been given a job making toys: "I'm fed up with making silly toys. It's not work for a man - but we're not men now, with half our insides and half our limbs gone; it's a good enough job for us, I suppose."

Joanna Bourke is the author of `Dismembering the Male: men's bodies, Britain and the Great War' (Reaktion Books, pounds 14.95)