After the war, the Government said it would look after the returning soldiers, with houses and jobs fit for the heroes they were. The reality was quite different…
After Armistice Day, on 11th November 1918, millions of soldiers hoped they would soon be sent home.
Most would be disappointed, as the task of moving so many was overwhelming. Many would have a long wait – sometimes over a year, before their turn came.
For a time there was an order to those who could return.
Those who had worked on farms or in mines were allowed to go first because Britain needed to get its industry back up and running as quickly as possible.
If the company you worked for before the war wrote to the government and said it was vital you returned, sometimes that might help you jump the queue, but if you were older, or your usual job wasn’t so important, you’d be further down the list.
The wait occasionally led to anger from the men, who would strike or mutiny and refuse to follow orders anymore.
Winston Churchill, who was a politician at the time, decided that the order system wasn’t fair – those who’d been on farms and mines were often the last to be called up to join the war and so going home first angered the others who’d served for longer periods of time.
He changed the rules so other things were taken into account, – such as length of service and any injuries.
A few soldiers weren’t in a hurry to return home, or to leave the army. They’d become accustomed to the way of life, or perhaps hadn’t family or friends to return to.
Some would stay and marry and raise families in the places where they’d fought, or continue to serve as soldiers in other parts of the world.
Those who did return home could find themselves on another long journey back to normality.
Leaving the army
Before he would have left the battlefield, a solider would have had a medical examination to document any injuries he had sustained.
He would also be given forms for claiming civilian clothes and an employment certificate to show what he had done in the army. If he’d lost any of his equipment that would be logged because it would have to be paid for out of his wages.
On arrival in England the man would move to a Dispersal Centre. This was a hutted or tented camp or barracks. Here he received a Protection Certificate which enabled him to get medical care, and a railway warrant or ticket to his home station.
They’d receive any outstanding pay or vouchers to receive this from the post office, a ration book and could choose to have either a clothing allowance of 52 shillings and sixpence or be provided with a suit of plain clothes.
They had to return their army great coat within 28 days of leaving and were given a pound in return.
The soldiers might have expected a hero’s welcome but it wasn’t the same for all. In some places there were bands at the railway centres playing triumphant music as the trains pulled in.
Red Cross girls gave out postcards for soldiers to write messages for their families, to let them know they were back. Others may have arrived late at night to an empty platform.
Back to normal?
The government thought it was important that those returning should quickly get back into everyday life, to their homes and jobs.
This was made more complicated by the fact that a large proportion of the men had been injured, and many suffered long term disabilities caused by amputation, blindness, disfigurement and poison gas damage to heart and lungs.
Surgery had improved, and there were advances in artificial limbs and so sometimes doctors could help soldiers become independent once more, where the injuries were physical.
A greater challenge was helping those with mental health problems caused by the trauma of being in war.
“Shell shock” as it was called then, caused patients to shake, to have nightmares and to see and hear things that weren’t there. It was frequently impossible for someone with shell-shock to lead a normal life.
Doctors didn’t really know how to treat mental health problems like these and sometimes their attempts were brutal – men would be told to stop being cowardly and pull themselves together.
Today we better understand the effect of traumatic events on mental health.
Enough to live on
Once they had been treated for their injuries, and whether they had or not, it was commonplace for the men to be left to help themselves, with little or no financial help to get back on their feet in society.
Unemployment was low during the war but once the men had returned there weren’t enough jobs for all, even though women had largely had to leave the jobs they’d taken on.
There were a number of charities and organisations who tried to provide support and relief. The British Legion was formed in 1921 when four national organisations of ex-servicemen were united.
They helped with financial assistance for ex-servicemen and their families, and to help them manage their injuries or disabilities, providing medical aids such as wheelchairs and crutches.
The Great War – Through a London Child’s Eye is supported by The National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund.