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A hero’s return? World War I and soldiers with disabilities

Posted on - 14th November, 2021 - 7:00pm | Author - | Posted in - History, Moor Park, Preston News
Disabled soldiers Pic: Historic England
40,000 soldiers lost a limb in World War I Pic: Historic England

During World War I, Britain lost one million service personnel. An incredible 40,000 soldiers lost a limb. Other injuries included facial scarring and blindness. Psychological damage from the horrors of war was little understood and often treated harshly.

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So how did returning soldiers fare, considering the primitive level of care at the time?

Preston celebrates the armistice

The Preston Pals were decimated in 1916 and many wives lost husbands and children their fathers. Due to local hospitals not being able to cope with the returning wounded, an emergency hospital had been set up. This was in Moor Park, where over 1,000 soldiers a year were treated. Over 100 nurses were employed. Meanwhile, the wounded anxiously awaited their future.

In November 1918 the guns grew silent, mill whistles blew and church bells rang. The cenotaph by the Flag Market marks the death toll.

The government had a plan to help veterans with disabilities, but was it enough? Pensions were devised based on the level of impairment, but they were inadequate.

Pensions – living on a pittance?

A full pension was given for the loss of two or more limbs, however this dropped to 50 per cent for the loss of a leg below the knee. Companies that employed soldiers with disabilities were given preferential treatment for contracts. Unfortunately they tended to take those with less severe disabilities. Moreover, the pension was considered too low to live on, leaving many people with disabilities in poverty.

The state provided no sheltered employment or retraining opportunities. Notably, no other country relied solely on voluntary aid for the returning injured.

YMCA "Don't Pity A Disabled Man" poster Pic: Imperial War Museum
YMCA “Don’t Pity A Disabled Man” poster Pic: Imperial War Museum

Prosthetics and plastic surgery

Mask for a scarred soldier Pic: Imperial War Museum
Metal masks were made to disguise facial injuries Pic: Imperial War Museum

Before the Great War, prosthetic limbs were primitive, made of wood, and virtually useless.

The 1920s saw many advancements in the comfort and practicality of artificial limbs.

First they were now made of lightweight aluminium and second, they had moveable joints. Another major problem was facial injuries. The new mechanised warfare had lead to terrible bullet and shrapnel wounds.

Metal masks were made to disguise such injuries, they were then painted in flesh tones. Facial surgery also advanced, with the patient’s own skin and tissue being used for plastic surgery.

Unfortunately, the mental damage caused by being exposed to the terrible conditions in Europe, was less understood.

Shell shock – not understood

Soldiers suffering from shell shock were often treated as cowards. Some, despicably, were ordered to be shot by their fellow comrades. Deserters, often just teenagers, were treated brutally:

“Thousands of men were in stages of mental collapse, driven near insane after seeing their friends massacred on the battlefield” (Findmypast)

Firing squad Pic: Legion
Some soldiers with shell shock faced a firing squad Pic: Legion

These poor wretches faced a firing squad of six or a dozen soldiers. Thankfully, by World War II, this horror had ended. The military death penalty was banned in 1930.

Rehabilitation

A page from a report describing in detail the training and instruction classes for disabled sailors and soldiers Pic: Warwick Digital Collections
A page from a report describing in detail the training and instruction classes for disabled sailors and soldiers Pic: Warwick Digital Collections

As mentioned earlier retraining was left to the voluntary sector. Several centres were set up to train amputees. The North West was also renowned for rehabilitation, notably at Moor Park hospital.

Injured soldiers and nurses at Moor Park
Injured soldiers and nurses at Moor Park

Housing

Another key role for the North West was in disabled housing, indeed one of the few custom-made memorial villages was built in Lancaster. This village was designed with sheltered workshops, specifically for returning veterans and their families.

Westfield village and memorial as it is today Pic: Historic England
Westfield village and memorial as it is today Pic: Historic England

While most assistance for returning servicemen was from the voluntary sector, the government of the day did not do nothing.

Additionally, The Royal British Legion was formed in 1921. Its aim was to get better support for disabled soldiers. Indeed, this is something they still do to this day, in their centenary year.



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