After the Guns Fell Silent: Researching the medical and social care provided to British disabled ex-servicemen of the First World War

In this Guest Blog, Dr Jessica Meyer, an AHRC WW1 Expert, talks Medical and Social Care provided to ex-servicemen.

AA075348 - Ministry of Pensions & National Insurance © Historic England Archive
A georgian house with cows on the front lawn probably in Herefordshire, occupied by the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance.  Image similar to one featured in country fair magazine, march 1955. Image AA075348 – Ministry of Pensions & National Insurance
© Historic England Archive. Used with kind permission of Historic England.

One of the most significant legacies of the First World War across Europe was the return home of a large number of men whose lives were profoundly altered by war-attributable disabilities.  In Britain, many of these men received aid and care from the State, in the form of the Ministry of Pensions, and a range of charitable institutions. Most, however, relied on their families for support, particularly their wives, mothers and other female relatives, to provide the medical and social care necessary for them to reintegrate into civil society.

© IWM (Art.IWM PST 12222)
Recruits Wanted (Art.IWM PST 12222) Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30892

Such support involved both physical and emotional labour. In 1921, Cannon Nisbet C. Marris wrote to the Regional Director of the Ministry of Pensions for the Nottingham Region about his son, Oswald, an ex-serviceman who suffered from functional paralysis, required ‘constant attention and is very helpless, requiring frequently two persons to move him in bed.’ [1] This work, Cannon Marris explained, was undertaken by himself and his wife.  Three years later, Mrs. W.H. Botterill described in her application for treatment assistance how, in addition to caring for her badly shell-shocked husband, she worked outside the home to ‘keep our home going, support myself, and provide my husband’s extra expenses, laundry, postage, etc.’ Just over a month later she suffered a breakdown due to what her doctor described as ‘overwork and strain.’ [2]

Mrs. Marris and Mrs. Botterill are only two of the women who appear in series PIN 26, (which are Ministry of Pension personal award files from the First World War held at the National Archives, London).  These 22,756 files represent only 2% of the approximately 1,137,800 First World War files ever created.  Nonetheless, they provide a rich resource of material for historians of the First World War and its medical, social and cultural legacy.  A tiny fraction of the available files have been used by historians to explore the cultural history of medicine and the war [3] but, as Michael Robinson has recently pointed out [https://fournationshistory.wordpress.com/2015/10/05/the-four-nations-and-beyond-the-post-armistice-experiences-of-shell-shocked-british-army-veterans/], a great deal of work on this material remains to be done.

© IWM (Art.IWM PST 5116)
New Scale of Separation Allowances (Art.IWM PST 5116)  Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/28413

The Men, Women and Care project, a five-year European Research Council Starting Grant-funded project currently underway at the University of Leeds, aims to facilitate future projects through the creation of a public database of the information contained in the PIN 26 files.  This will enable scholars to identify clusters of potentially relevant material by variables such as type of disability, amount of pension or gratuity, region of residence and existence of dependents. By publishing the database in conjunction with a separate catalogue series MH 106: Admission and Discharge Registers and Medical Sheets for Personnel of Expeditionary and Imperial Forces, 1914-1919 and the release of the 1921 national census, the project will provide resources to the next generation of scholars working on the legacy of the First World War in Britain.

© IWM (Art.IWM PST 11148)
Disabled Ex-Service Men (Art.IWM PST 13806) Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/31758

In the meantime, the four members of the Men, Women and Care team will be using the process of putting the database together to identify material within PIN 26 to further our own research into the ways in which care for disabled ex-servicemen shaped British society.  Our specific projects include looking at the nature and extent of family-based medical and social care, how distance from home influenced care provision, the role of stigma in care provision, and the work of religious charities in supporting disabled ex-servicemen and their families.

Through these projects we aim to recover the voices and experiences of both disabled ex-servicemen and the women who facilitated their reintegration into post-war society. Too often unrewarded for their efforts by the State and overlooked by scholarship, these women formed a vital element of the social order in the interwar years. Through the stories of women like Mrs Marris and Mrs Botterill we hope to learn more about the lives of women whose war work persisted long after the guns fell silent.

La Protection Du Reforme No2 © IWM (Art.IWM PST 11148)
La Protection du Réformé No. 2 [Protection for Category Two Invalided Soldiers] (Art.IWM PST 11148) Half-length depictions of two moustachioed, convalescent French soldiers, who face the viewer. The nearest man sits bare-headed with his hands crossed. The other soldier wears a serviceman’s kepi.  Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/22629
[1] The National Archives (TNA), PIN 26/19945, Cannon Nisbet C. Marris, Letter to Regional Director, Nottingham Region, Ministry of Pensions, 6th January, 1921.

[2] TNA, PIN 26/21239, Mrs W. H. Botterill, Application for Treatment Assistance, 5th March, 1924 ; Ella C. Flint, M.B., Report, 23rd April, 1924.

[3] See Joanna Bourke, Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain and the Great War (London: Reaktion Books, 1996); Jessica Meyer, Men of War: Masculinity and the First World War in Britain (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

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