disabled World War 1 veterans and staff at the War Seal Mansions in 1920

Invincible Us: The History Of Rehab - Charity Vs The State, To The Fighting Spirit Of Invictus

disabled World War 1 veterans and staff at the War Seal Mansions in 1920
Note: This article contains adult themes and strong language which some might find offensive and is unsuitable for younger audiences

You might think that an explosion that took off one of your legs and killed several comrades would be something you would remember.

But that wasn’t the experience of former Royal Marine Cassidy Little, who, in ‘Coming Home From Afghanistan’, recounts how, in the immediate aftermath of the IED blast that injured him, things were pretty much a blur:

“The only thing I remember is looking up at one guy and saying, ‘Is my leg gone?’ And he said, ‘Yeah’, and I said, ‘Well, there goes my tap-dancing days’. That’s all I remember from that situation. That, and getting on the back of (an American) Blackhawk (helicopter) and… just ripping the piss out of the Americans for being American.”

This might seem an odd way to behave while being catastrophically injured, but then he says:

“But I think I had A LOT of morphine in me by that point in time.”

Once the morphine had worn off, Cassidy woke up in hospital in the UK and learnt not just of the details of the incident that had taken his leg, but also that several of his friends and comrades had tragically died in the same incident.

He was at least consoled by learning that, even if he hadn’t remembered it, he’d behaved like a hero, yelling medical advice meant to help others despite being injured himself.

And then his sense of humour apparently came back, just in time for the next stage in his journey – moving on to the (then) leading rehabilitation centre for service personnel – Headley Court:

“(I always called Headley Court) ‘A Family Reunion at the House of Broken Dreams’, because nobody goes into a recruiting office saying, ‘Yes, where I’d like to end my career in the military is Headley Court – if I could please, end up at Headley Court at the end of it all, I’d really appreciate it’. Nobody ever does that.”

Cassidy's darkly-humorous attitude about his upcoming rehabilitation is apt. 

In ‘War Come Home’, Deborah Cohen explains that, following World War 1, a serviceman’s response to life-changing injuries was generally characterised by one of two divergent paths. Either he despaired and became embittered, or his outlook was one of “(u)ndaunted cheerfulness (that) signified a masculine autonomy that transcended physical limitations…”

Many - for good reasons that are explored below - took the former path; but there are also echoes of Cassidy’s self-deprecation in these portraits of stoically jocular disabled veterans:

“…men in the hospital, reported the papers, looked to their fellow patients for inspiration. There was always someone worse off. Blind men and amputees joked about who was most incapacitated; it was always the other fellow. As a Roehampton patient observed, ‘The more hopeless the case, the more cheerful the man’.”

And in the ‘Star and Garter Magazine’, established by patients at the home of the same name, the outlook was that:

“In spite of physical disabilities, life can be a cheery affair (and so they tried) to dwell on the highlights rather than on the shadows of life”.

Thus, Cohen says:

“Most of the articles were humorous. Sex and marital relations provided a favorite source of jokes, proving that disablement had not extinguished men’s interest in the opposite sex.”

(For his part, Cassidy’s rehabilitation involved dancing on the BBC’s ‘The People’s Strictly’ with Natalie Lowe, who he described as “…6’8” in heels, (and a) blond Australian dancer who is lovely, and very patient, and very kind, and very professional - and hot as balls”).

Cohen says the best emblem of this stoic resolve was, in fact, W E Henley’s poem ‘Invictus’ – this was the inspiration for the games founded by Prince Harry, and Henley himself had lost a limb following a childhood illness:

“In the fell clutch of circumstance,

“I have not winced nor cried aloud,

“Under the bludgeonings of chance,

“My head is bloody, but unbowed.”

Invictus means ‘undefeated’ or ‘invincible’ - in this case by either Henley’s and the ex-servicemen’s challenging lives.

Furthermore, the theme of divergence isn’t limited to just the servicemen themselves. The huge challenge of providing for and rehabilitating mass numbers of former soldiers was an immensely challenging one that all the Great War participating countries struggled with. And the history of the application and development of competing approaches to rehabilitation are necessarily tightly interlaced with the stories of injured veterans.

‘Home for Heroes’, a WW1 or post-WW1-era leaflet by Enham Village Centre (image: Enham Trust)
‘Home for Heroes’, a WW1 or post-WW1-era leaflet by Enham Village Centre (image: Enham Trust)

At first glance, the approach taken by Germany would appear to have been the eminently right and reasonable one.

Even before the war, the German pension system had been the most generous in Europe, and this trend continued afterwards – German disabled veterans received payments far in excess of their British counterparts. And payments were calibrated to support an ex-serviceman’s growing family, with an increase for his spouse and each child, regardless of whether or not he’d been married or had children before his service. (i.e. The very opposite of the tight-fisted British approach – more below).

There is also evidence that the post-war Weimar Republic in Germany tried hard to encourage a sense of community for its disabled servicemen:

“Cautioning that the disabled should not become objects of pity, local state organizations and charitable foundations urged the public to express its gratitude in deeds, rather than words, especially by helping the disabled to return to their former employment. ‘Deep in your heart you know that this debt is not the Reich’s alone, but your own as well’, instructed one pamphlet distributed by the Baden Home Front’s Thanks. ‘Silver and gold will not be enough to repay it. Above all, it requires warm-hearted love for one’s fellow men!’ ‘Love for one’s fellow men’ connoted a solicitude that was familial in its scope: the public was called upon to do whatever it could to assist in reintegration, whether it was finding the disabled man a job, offering his family housing, or just listening sympathetically when he talked about his war experiences”.

Still not satisfied, the government made a point of tracking the rate at which disabled servicemen were able to re-establish themselves in the jobs and at the social status they’d enjoyed before the war. 

Cohen mentions all of this in a section that analyses what went wrong in Germany, and refers to survey data showing there had ‘only’ been a 60 percent success rate. (Civil servants had a particularly high re-establishment rate and manual labourers a low one).

Admittedly, loss of prior earnings and status is no small matter, but it’s important to bear in mind that some of those ‘successes’ didn’t just re-establish themselves but also may have exceeded their prior social standing. 

That disabled ex-servicemen experienced even this much social mobility is also impressive given what was happening at the time - an interwar economy beset by hyperinflation in the 1920s (in 1923, the exchange rate was 21,000 German Marks to a single US dollar) and then the global Great Depression, sparked by the 1929 Stock Market Crash on Wall Street.

Although the state was dominant in the German effort to rehabilitate its wounded servicemen, there were also non-state actors. Before these were overshadowed by the government, charities that had started during the war “opened in every city to serve wounded and sick soldiers… For blinded men, there were vacation homes and retraining schools… Those who had lost hands could attend workshops for retraining, including the One-Armed School established in Saxony in 1915. For the permanently disabled, facilities like the Marburg Home for Disabled Privates and Riflemen promised lifelong care”.

the original site of enham village centre
Enham, one of Britain’s ‘homes’ for housing and helping British veterans back into work (image: Enham Trust)

At the Marburg Home, “soldiers who had learned the ‘dark side of human nature’,” were led “to believe again in the moral value of humanity… through ‘warm friendship and genuine love…’”

The British, meanwhile, took an utterly laissez-faire approach, and one that in many ways appears to have been utterly negligent by comparison.

Like Germany, there were legacy issues behind all of this. Unlike their continental neighbours, the British didn’t have a history of military conscription. This is why their army at the opening of the First World War was in many ways superior in training and motivation, yet at the same time incredibly small by continental standards.

What it also meant was that, because of volunteerism, the British government felt it had little obligation to its military post-service. If the arrangement on the continent was that requirement to serve by the soldier also meant the requirement to provide in some way by the government, the opposite must also be true.

Conscription was introduced in Britain in 1916, but it wasn’t until 1919 that a Royal Warrant mandated the provision of military pensions – the same year that a violent protest by disabled veterans broke out in Hyde Park.

This was a step in the right direction, “making pensions a statutory right, introducing appeals tribunals, and increasing rates”, but, beyond this, the government did little to help reintegrate veterans back into civilian life.

But relying on charity wasn’t the right answer either. Many philanthropists didn’t see what they were doing as anything other than temporary, and they pushed for more government involvement.

In fact, as well as the lobbying by those in what today might be termed the voluntary or third sector, or Civil Society, there were also battles going on within the government.

J A Barlow, head of the Training Department in the Ministry of Labour (responsibility for this sort of thing seems to have alternated between the Ministries of Pensions and Labour), was infuriated with the rather less generous offerings of the Treasury:

“Their present policy is to refuse grants where they can find any possible pretext, however unreasonable, and where they cannot decently refuse, to whittle away the grant by reducing its amount below the already inadequate sum of £25 per annum and by imposing unjustifiable and irritating conditions. Furthermore, they obviously intend to cut off the grant at the earliest possible moment, whatever the necessity for its continuance.”

In 1922, when Barlow wrote his note, £25 a year was the equivalent of £1,395.48 in 2018, according to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator. Little wonder that, with such meagre sums, most employment schemes for disabled veterans were, Cohen says, small in scale (and, presumably, rather inadequate). 

For its part, the Royal British Legion went from raising £106,000 in 1921 (or £5,097,177 in 2018) to £524,000 in 1930 (more than £33,645,000) through its yearly poppy sales. 

Referring to the Bible quote that says it is ‘easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into Heaven’, the ‘British Legion Journal’’s A G Webb remarked that:

“Many years’ experience of pensions problems has almost driven me to the conclusion that it’s easier for a rich man to get into Heaven than for a poor man to ascertain his pension rights single-handedly.”

The animosity between the Ministry of Pensions and the public continued throughout the 1930s, with the American journalist Katherine Mayo saying that, “’Bureaucratic’, ‘cold’, ‘without generous impulses’—such phrases one hears applied on general principles to the Ministry of Pensions by good English citizens’.”

The griping didn’t stop there:

“In 1937, the Ministry was once more the object of a barrage of criticism, this time from an unexpected source: the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations. At their annual conference, deputies repudiated the minister’s statement about his department’s good work and called for an inquiry into the subject of pensions. E. J. Griffith, a member of the Public Assistance Committee of the West Riding County Council, described the plight of disabled men in the gloomiest possible terms. He alleged that 8,000 ex-servicemen had committed suicide in 1928 and 1929, one-third of whom were affected by poison gas. By the end of the month, Labour M.P.s had taken up the Conservatives’ charges in Parliament, noting, in the words of one, that, ‘there must be something seriously wrong with the treatment of ex-service men when a complacent Conservative conference agrees to such a resolution’. For the umpteeth time in its short history, the Ministry of Pensions was on the defensive”.

The National Union of Conservative and Constitutional Associations was like today’s Conservative Party conference. The Conservatives held power at the time, so the criticism from within the party is particularly noteworthy – criticism that, as Cohen points out, was soon joined by Labour MPs. 

Though she also says that, despite the Ministries of Labour and Pensions having been set up by David Lloyd George’s wartime coalition (he was a Liberal) to win over Labour support, when they held power, Labour weren’t necessarily that much more generous.

Yet, in some ways, the charge of stinginess may have been a little unfair. 

Despite the deflation of the Great Depression*, the Ministry of Pensions had kept payments to war veterans at 1919 levels. In fact, Britain was the only country to not reduce compensation to the war wounded during this period, and this despite the British government making cuts elsewhere. Yes, these men still struggled, but relative to those around them, they weren’t necessarily being deprived.

(*Both significant inflation, too much money and demand that drives up prices, and deflation, insufficient demand that pulls down prices and reduces economic growth and activity, were problems between the two wars. Too much inflation resulted from the large increase in government expenditure that had started during the war and was worse in Germany; and, later, huge deflation because of the Great Depression that started after the 1929 Wall Street Crash).

To give some point of comparison, by 1934, a completely disabled man was getting £104 annually, and he might have had extra allowances for family members. That’s only £7,311.59 in 2018 money, hardly a comfortable amount, though an unskilled worker only got £129 (£9,069.19 in 2018), skilled workers £195 (£13,709.24) and foremen £273 (£19,192.94.)

A disabled veteran interviewed about is war-time experiences in the 1970s

But then, it’s little wonder that the reputation for miserliness was difficult for the government to shake. While pensions for the war disabled may have had some semblance of reasonableness about them by 1934, they certainly didn’t start out that way. Many who deserved pensions were deemed too ‘fit’ for them by wartime Army medical boards, and it seems even those that got them only received a pittance:

“The discovery late in 1914 that the totally disabled pensioner received only 17s. 6d. [and this at a time when a flank of beef cost 7d., a quart of milk nearly 4d., and the average working-class expenditure on food before the war had run to 23s. 9d. a week] provoked outrage…”

To put that into perspective, bear in mind that before 1971 there were 240 pence (d) to a pound, 12 pence to a shilling (s) and therefore 20 shillings to a pound. Thus, 17-and-a-half shillings a week was approximately 73 percent of a pound, or about £38 a year (£4,307.18 in 2018.) Not really enough to live on, especially when, as was pointed out, £1, 3 shillings and 9 pence was what the average working-class person spent on food each week (or roughly £61 and 15 shillings annually.)

The British government also didn’t recalibrate pensions for those who got married after their war service. What this meant was that a disabled veteran would have received £3 a week in 1926 (£180.13 in 2018) if he had started his family before he left the military. 

But if disablement had ended his military career before he got married and started a family, he’d need to survive on the by-then single man’s pension of just £2 per week, roughly £120.09 in 2018.

The effect of all of this was, essentially, to often disable war wives as well:

“The care of a badly disabled man required tremendous stamina. Women not only nursed their disabled husbands and took exclusive responsibility for housework and children but also, if the family budget required, went out to work. Before she and her husband moved to the War Seal Mansions (later Stoll – see below), Mrs. Ripley held down a job, cared for the couple’s young daughter, and carried her wheelchair-bound spouse up two steep flights of stairs every day—on her back. ‘The women suffer almost as much as the men’, claimed W. J. Roberts, secretary of the War Seal Foundation. ‘They undergo great nerve-strain, and everything must be done to alleviate their cases as well as their husbands’. In 1938, the Pilgrim Trust visited the wife of a disabled man: ‘The woman is in a broken-down state of health. ‘Feels she is finished’ and unsuitable for further work’. More than one-third of the War Seal Foundation’s wives predeceased their severely disabled husbands. They were, according to the Mansions’ nurse, ‘literally worked to death’.”

What disabled veterans were paid to do was to go away.

On the Peace Day parade of July 1919, the wounded were unrepresented largely because they’d been paid to stay at home. One double amputee member of Parliament, another Cohen – JB Brunel Cohen – said of the whole affair:

“The Dead are brought to memory by the noble Cenotaph, the lucky living are in the procession, but where are the wounded? Surely it would not have been too much to have had even one lorry load just to have given the crowd an opportunity of showing their appreciation.”

Footage of the 1919 Peace Day parade

Being forgotten in this way was the real problem. Even after the government come around to the idea that pensions were first necessary, and then that they needed to be sufficient to live on, proper rehabilitation and independence was still a long way off:

“For disabled ex-servicemen, the most modest of aspirations became unattainable, self-sufficiency foreclosed. Long rides on crowded public transportation exhausted those able to find work, while spells of illness jeopardized even apparently secure employment. Men confined to wheelchairs were forced either to spend days on end cooped up in their apartments or to live apart from their families in veterans’ homes outfitted with elevators. Even the easiest of tasks proved daunting and the simplest of pleasures were denied them. By 1937, Arthur Pool, a chartered surveyor who had been gassed in France, had accepted a constrained life: ‘I am of course unable to take part in any sport, to walk any distance in the winter, or to hurry, and at times it is practically impossible to walk upstairs’.”

Paradoxically, despite a far more generous state dead set on proper compensation for disabled soldiers (war pensions took up a whopping 20 percent of the Weimar Republic’s annual budget), German ex-servicemen didn’t necessarily fare that much better.

That’s because the government was so proactive, it ended up crowding out what might have been otherwise useful and necessary charities. 

One would-be philanthropist whose struggled against the state bureaucracy was the Berlin furniture manufacturer Oskar Zill. His idea was to use disabled veterans as his workers after the war, and to have them live nearby at purpose-built homes. 

But it was not to be, in large part because the local mayor and later Labour Ministry assistant secretary Dr Hermann Geib saw the proposal as a state subsidy of his business, and refused to endorse it. 

Assuming Zill’s intentions were entirely honest, which they almost certainly seem to have been, this is ironic. Like he said at the time, the “founding principle of our enterprise is the desire to free the state from burdens”, and to help the disabled to earn their own livings.

A contributory factor in all of this was the wartime “philanthropic jungle populated by unsavoury characters who preyed on the public’s goodwill” – in other words, the man on the street not being able to tell the difference between genuine veterans’ aid agencies and bogus imitations. 

One example of the latter was the ‘Society of the Iron Cross’, which was founded by a ‘Count’ Wenzel zu Sternau und Hohenau, “ostensibly to help wounded officers secure a home…” but that really existed “principally to support its president, who paid himself a handsome salary…”

Indeed, Cohen sums things up by saying that, “’homes’ for the destitute were just as likely to serve the needs of lazy real estate speculators…”

A British Home Office Departmental Committee estimated that nine percent of those in London were also fraudulent. Though, in Germany’s case, extreme material shortages seem to have forced the hand of the government and pushed it towards a more centralised model of philanthropy. Inefficiency and waste – of people, money or materials – simply wasn’t an option. All the warring nations struggled to maximise efficiency but, because of encirclement and Royal Naval blockade, material shortages in Germany were particularly acute from 1914 – 1918.

But then, “What began as an emergency policy to conserve resources for the war effort became, in the Weimar Republic, a means of ensuring the new state’s authority. The interventionist German welfare state—in the late nineteenth century a model for other European reformers—reached its apotheosis in the (post-war) Weimar Republic. War and revolution** made the expansion of the welfare state not simply a possibility but a political necessity. To secure the loyalty of a sceptical citizenry, Weimar’s framers sought to provide the best benefits possible; the constitution of the new Republic accorded each citizen an extensive list of social rights, including the right to work or maintenance. The centerpiece of the compromise among Social Democrats, the Catholic Center Party, and the left-liberal Democrats, Weimar’s comprehensive welfare programs undergirded the state’s claim to legitimacy.”

(**Germany experienced revolution at the end of the war in the wake of their defeat).

In other words, non-official charities could be thought of as a threat to the authority of the government:

“At best, philanthropy was unproductive; at worst, it threatened the state’s claim to authority by highlighting the shortcomings of its services.”

In parts of the country where the Weimar Republic was not yet firmly established, the government did acquiesce to charities, but generally not where the care of disabled veterans was concerned. Precisely because war veterans were a hot political issue in Germany, this meant “charities that sought to assist (them) were placed at a disadvantage relative to institutions and organizations that cared for the poor, the sick, the elderly, babies, children, and orphans”.

Cohen explains that ‘disadvantage’ in this case meant government control of their money, “which in practical terms meant the distribution of their funds through government offices and bureaus, (and) they received no relief from taxation”.

The government also, rather cynically, employed charity-fraud investigators on a speculative, or what we might call ‘target-driven’, model. They were only paid via the confiscated funds of ‘fraudulent’ charities they managed to shut down. 

Thus incentivised to close down legitimate ones as well, there was soon wrangling within the government as the State Commissioner at the time noted a former court official had said that, “Maercker’s (the man in charge of regulating charities) written evaluations are completely lacking in objectivity… (and that his court appearances) display such prejudice that a judge has to fight the conviction that M. is motivated by personal interests”.

What this all culminated in was failure for both veterans charities and the government because the Weimar Republic had created an expectation that it, and it alone, would provide for the needy. 

And in the difficult economic circumstances of the inter-war world, this meant creating expectations that could never be met. Horribly, the result of this on the ground and in the streets was that:

“Deprived of public expressions of gratitude, disabled veterans came to believe that their fellow citizens had scorned their sacrifices”.

For their part, many Germans also came to view disabled veterans as greedy and burdensome. But then, of course they did, because:

“…fearful of public condemnation, the Labor Ministry’s officials exploited the hostility between the disabled and their fellow citizens. In press notices about the revised goldmark pensions, the Ministry exaggerated the average amounts paid to the disabled…” 

In 1929, Oskar Karstedt, who worked in the Ministry of Labor said that:

“(War victims have a) sense of entitlement to support, which makes a mockery both of reason and of consideration for others.”

Cohen elaborates:

“…he offered three rejected cases (as examples), calculated to reinforce negative stereotypes: an imprisoned disabled veteran, who threatened violence unless he received money; a war-blinded man with a monthly pension of 479.60 RM who tried to publicize his rejection, while hiding his income; and a disabled officer who demanded 10,000 RM ‘to buy a summer house!’”

(According to Stockholm University’s historicalstatistics.org, 479 RM (Reichsmarks) in 1929 was the equivalent of 1,300 Euros a month in 2015 – roughly £930 that year, or £1,013 in 2018). 

Inside the Bernhard Baron Basketry Workshop at the Enham Village Centre for disabled ex-Service men, c1935
Some of those lucky enough to find work in Britain during the problematic 1930s – these veterans are inside the Bernhard Baron Basketry Workshop at Enham (image: Enham Trust)

The rift between disabled veterans and the ‘cold, aloof, bureaucratic’ Weimar state had been a long time coming:

“Not malice, but severe structural problems delayed the granting of pensions. In Germany, as in Great Britain, the administrative apparatus responsible for the calculation of pensions could not keep apace with the vast numbers of cases. In the early years of the Weimar Republic, the crisis was made all the more acute by the reassessments required for the new National Pension Law, the confiscation of pension documents by the Entente (the Allies), and mandated reductions in the bureaucracy. After a medical examination to determine their disability, many men had to wait over a year and a half for their pensions to be recalculated.”

Some of the sense of alienation also appears to have been derived from the state’s attempts at thoroughness. One question asked about any illegitimate children that may have been sired; and twice-yearly home visits were required when pension payments were topped up for additional dependents. 

One disabled veteran grumbled:

“The war victims should finally be left in peace. They already know what our apartments look like.”

Another part of the problem may have been the stress the officials administering and assessing veterans for aid were put under. 

They were under pressure to make sure that veterans weren’t feigning, or exaggerating, injury and they often had to do so whilst being harassed and overworked by management. Small wonder some of them “made little effort to soothe tempers or accommodate difficult cases. Where they could not spare money, they saved on politeness”.

It was in this atmosphere that “the welfare bureaucracy’s accomplishments remained hidden (and) its failures (were) magnified. The state’s successes… received only grudging acknowledgement (whereas cases) of officials who helped their clients generally went unrecorded. If, on the other hand, welfare bureaucrats behaved badly, the incident found certain hearing in the war victims’ press, occasionally even in mainstream newspapers… without an evenhanded assessment of the welfare state’s record… mutual bitterness was inevitable”.

It was only a matter of time before all this bad karma was channelled into radical politics:

“Weimar’s victims proved susceptible to the Nazi appeal. According to National Socialist propaganda, disabled veterans had the Weimar Republic to blame for their suffering. Just as the traitorous Home Front had deprived soldiers of their rightful victory in the war, so, too, had it denied disabled veterans their due: ‘In the last fourteen years the victims of the war have been forgotten, even derided. Only with National Socialism did the Fuhrer gain for those citizens of the state the place of honor they deserved among the German people’.

“…In the Thousand Year (Third) Reich, the long-overdue Fatherland’s thanks became a matter of daily life, disbursed in parades and movie theaters, badges and salutes.”

It’s tempting then to think that the laissez-faire approach taken by the British government was, therefore, the better course.

Cohen’s study doesn’t go beyond the comparison of Britain and Germany in any depth, but she does mention that Australia, New Zealand, France and the US all gave considerably more state aid to their disabled veterans than Britain did. And as we know, fascism didn’t take over the government, nor become thoroughly intertwined with disabled war veterans’ communities, in any of those countries***.

(***Having said that, former US Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler did allege that he’d been approached to lead a fascist movement composed of angry veterans in an attempted overthrow of President Franklin Roosevelt - an incident known as the ‘Business Plot’. And anyway, in the case of Britain, there was a relatively small fascist party, the BUF, which did attract the tank pioneer JFC Fuller).

US world war 1 disabled veterans occupational rehabilition
An example of occupational rehabilitation as promoted and, hopefully, practised in the US (image: Library of Congress)

Much of the difference can probably be explained by the unique socio-historical forces in Germany during the 1920s and 30s. Not just the particularly harsh economic climate, but also the fact that Germany had lost the war, and how this must have influenced the degree to which many veterans felt embittered.

While all of this may be true, the story doesn’t end there because to fully appreciate how rehabilitation developed and improved, it’s important to understand the extent of despair still experienced by many British disabled veterans. Cohen points out very bluntly that, victorious or not, many of them didn’t feel it had all been worth it:

“Despite the strength of the pacifist sentiment in the 1930s, most people were not prepared to read that the war’s casualties (actually) regretted their sacrifices.”

This letter, accidentally discovered by, and shocking to, one veteran’s carers, adds more depth to the sense of anger and betrayal felt by some of these men:

“’The powers against anyone living a decent married life in a home of their own are bound to force stringent times wherever they can’. It was the ‘rulers’ desire to ‘remain multimillionaires themselves’ that explained disabled veterans’ misery. The war wounded had been ‘persecuted’ by a government that ‘squeezed the last halfpenny out of us to pay for their slaughtering of multitudes of Men Women & Children. Sure to prate about the Crisis they force, they will always take care of themselves’.”

The above letter was penned by a man who’d managed to get a place at one of the purpose-built housing complexes that sprung up after the war. Whatever justification he may have had for being frustrated, he was still better off than many disabled veterans. 

An example of the truly dire circumstances some of the war-wounded were liable to find themselves in is this account of a veteran living in a cellar with his family in 1933:

“The cellar is so damp that even the mice have left it in disgust, in fact… the place shakes so much that there is an iron girder right through the house to hold it up. I did not mind these conditions (at war in) Belgium, but now I have got a jolly good wife and three grand kiddies to look after, I am trying to get a decent place for them to lie in.”

An even more tragic account is given by a long-serving veteran named Edward Lifford, who was shot in the elbow and eventually lost his arm, then his job, and then his children – one to a motor accident and the other to an orphanage because he and his wife couldn’t afford to support her:

“Until just before Christmas my two children were put out, but unfortunately for us my Boy aged 5 years was knocked down on Sat Dec 15th by a motor car and received injuries from which he succumbed. The idea of course of not having our children with us has made this loss more hard to bear… I was one of the first contingent that landed in France in 1914 and fought from ‘Mons’ downward being in all the engagements until finally being wounded in 1916.”

Part of the problem was that the British government – unlike the French, Italian and German governments – didn’t place disabled veterans in jobs, nor require quotas for businesses so that might hire them more often. 

So for those who could find work, periods of economic disruption, such as the post-war slowdown of 1920-22, must have been extremely trying. The frustration of one disabled veteran at trade unions being unable to train any more ex-servicemen for work is palpable in this letter:

“I am steady, willing, active, abstainer (i.e. from alcohol), ect…. I cannot stand the awful depression much longer; surely I can be of use to somebody…. I hate charity, all I want is reasonable employment; will you please help a despairing man.”

Reluctance by employers to hire the permanently-disabled wasn’t always a matter of profit. Many were also worried about them getting hurt, or hurting others, inside factories and workshops. 

And Labour exchanges sometimes even withheld unemployment benefits from ‘unemployable’ men, leaving them to the vagaries of charity.

These kinds of difficulties meant that government statistics - which showed there were at least 20,000 disabled veterans who were ‘unemployable’ - were most likely an underestimate:

“Countless men, having exhausted their unemployment benefit (simply) failed to sign on.”

This reflects the experience of writer Len Deighton whose father, a World War One veteran, gave up on claiming a pension because the amount was so small, and simply not worth the bother.

Despite all the obstacles – very possibly including the necessity of walking four or five miles a day, public transport only being discounted for blinded ex-servicemen – many did manage to find work. 

Disabled British ex-servicemen on way home, c1933
Disabled veterans returning from work in 1933 (image: Enham Trust)

Some of the luckier ones ended up doing government office work in place of the women who had done it during wartime.

Others might end up at places like the Lord Roberts Workshops which made cabinets and did woodwork, or at the British Legion Poppy Factory, where they might make enlarged paper poppies for Armistice Day. 

And then there were the philanthropic housing centres that sought to integrate assisted living and employment. 

One of these was ‘Enham Trust’. Still going today under the same name, its mission was the revival of rural industry while helping disabled men back into the workforce.

Another was the ‘War Seal Mansions’, established to promote the “sanctity of the liberal individual” by the music-hall entrepreneur Sir Oswald Stoll (and today named after him). 

And the fight for women’s suffrage was connected to the establishment of ‘The Royal Star and Garter Homes’ (or, according to organisation’s website, the ‘Star & Garter Home for Disabled Sailors, Soldiers and Airmen’ when it was established at Richmond in 1924). 

Star and Garter Home on Richmond Hill, seen from across the Thames River
The Royal Star and Garter Home from across the Thames (image: George Tsiagalakis)

Appropriate then that one notable visitor to the home in 1934 was Mary Borden, a former suffragette and heiress who’d set up and worked in a field hospital during the war. (During her service, she happened to have an affair with and later marry the liaison officer Edward Spears).

She was therefore no stranger to some of the truly horrific injuries that were wrought by the conflict, describing them in her memoir ‘The Forbidden Zone’:

“There are heads and knees and mangled testicles. There are chests with holes as big as our fist, and pulpy thighs, shapeless; and stumps where legs once were fastened. There are eyes—eyes of sick dogs, sick cats, blind eyes, eyes of delirium; and mouths that cannot articulate; and parts of faces—the nose gone, or the jaw. There are these things, but no men.”

Hideous battlefield injuries aside, Borden was pleasantly surprised to find that the home was doing a fine job of rehabilitating the ex-servicemen - turning them back into men, as it were:

“It had… a reassuringly masculine ambience. ‘A spacious, comfortable men’s club’, there was ‘nothing to suggest an institution, no uniforms’. In the common room, a fire crackled in a tiled hearth. Carefully dressed men gathered around circular wooden tables. All were cheerful. One had ‘a jolly red face and laughing brown eyes’, another ‘gave a fat chortle’. ‘What a lot of jokes seemed to be going about’, she recalled. A few of the men huddled over a chessboard, while others made stuffed toys for an upcoming bazaar. Her spirits lifted, she ventured upstairs to where the ‘bed cases’ lay. It was anything but depressing. In a war ‘all gay with flowers’, beds bedecked with bright pink blankets, she met the Home’s drummer boy, paralyzed in October 1914. He ‘grinned all over’. Her apprehension vanished. Much to her surprise, Borden realized that she had come to ‘one place in the world where men didn’t worry, where they were at peace… one place where they were happy’.”

The generous donations that had gone into establishing the home were clearly on display, for upon its opening in 1924, the Times said:

“The Home has the dignity and charm which are associated with the halls of such a place as Hampton Court Palace.”

But the jocular atmosphere Borden observed was in some ways misleading. That’s because, Cohen tells us, the humour was very often of the gallows variety. New patients to the home were, after all, enrolled in the ‘wreath fund’, to help pay to decorate the graves of those who died. 

Or they might just be rather ironic about their day-to-day existence:

“The completely incapacitated Joe Richards, celebrated in the press for his ability to write with his teeth, sardonically referred to himself as a ‘well-known helpless man’. Unable to move from his bed or avoid visitors’ stares, he wrote an article titled ‘The Invisible Man’: ‘For weeks on end I have been endeavouring to solve the problem of how to make myself invisible’. In an essay on his outdoor treatment, ‘H.B.’ compared himself to a dog leashed on a porch, subject to the unwelcome attention of visitors such as Mary Borden: ‘It will not be many months before I shall be able to do all the tricks and work of a good dog, or, if there is no work to be done, I can try ‘begging’.”

‘Epistle of Imahlia to the Kroks’, a satirical piece printed in the Star and Garter Magazine, shows how one resident, Bill Foster, felt about things:

“He told the story of the Spinekaces’ life under ‘a sect called the KOMITI’ (committee), who though they were ‘rich and can do things’, knew little about their charges’ lives. They founded hospitals for paraplegics on the summits of hills too steep for wheelchairs: ‘Now inasmuch as the spinekaces know not how to walk, but perforce have to ride in chariots, it is always necessary that their palaces be at the top of a hill, for of a surety it would be too easy on level ground’. They built grand marble entrance halls and forbade patients to enter them in their motorized tricycles: ‘Tarry ye not in the halls lest ye wear out the marble, then shall we have nothing to show to those that be not of the spinekaces’.

“Unless they wrote in codes, the Spine Cases had no choice but gratitude… In private, disabled ex-servicemen might despair, rage, or weep, but the image they presented to the world was uniformly good-humoured… After all, (they) owed (their livelihoods) to philanthropy, and the public did not want to support the disconsolate.”

Out of and away from dingy cellars these ex-servicemen may have been, but many – about a third – would still die before the age of 35. 

In the case of those who were paralysed, this passage, in terminology of its time, indicates why:

“(Paraplegics) had to be bathed, dressed, bandaged. Only conscientious, laborious nursing kept them alive. Many men were incontinent. Without enemas two or three times a week, pyelitis (or pyelonephritis, a kidney infection) threatened death by the body’s own poisons. Bedsores were a constant worry. Many paraplegic patients had open wounds on their backs or sides so large that ‘you could up your hands in’. Twice a day, their bodies had to be rubbed with methylated spirits. Where bones protruded, extra layers of bandages were added to dressings.”

As well as ongoing physical agonies, the situation these men were in might also cause social problems, when their personal aims clashed with those of their home.

One example is the story of a disabled veteran who broke the rules and used his purpose-built residence as a base for printing. His goal was to earn some extra money on the side to help support his family, but the home wouldn’t allow it and he wasn’t in a position to argue:

“Unlike the state, philanthropists owed nothing to their charges. All that was given voluntarily could also be taken away.” 

What seems to be a picture of a model for the layout for Sir Oswald Stoll’s ‘War Seal Mansions’ in Fulham
What seems to be a picture of a model for the layout for Sir Oswald Stoll’s ‘War Seal Mansions’ in Fulham (Image: Stoll.org.uk)

Oswald Stoll’s War Seal Foundation may have been set up to promote the (philosophically) liberal values of independence, individual freedom and self-sufficiency, but, in practice, it was often run along more conservative lines:

“Soon after their arrival in the Mansions, many men realized that they would either have to behave as the administration expected or find a new home. What had been daily life became transgression. To drink in excess was to face… reprimand. Late nights were prohibited. At 10:30 P.M., the (wheelchair accessible) elevators were turned off; disabled men who stayed out had to find another way to reach apartments on top floors (and)… children (such as the noisy teenaged offspring of a paralyzed mute) could be grounds for dismissal.”

Conflicts might also arise, like the printing story above, out of attempts to be self-sufficient and industrious. 

Some disabled veterans, unable to get funeral insurance, sought a creative way around the problem:

“…the ‘Self-Helpers’ (members of the Independent Self-Help Society)… paid a weekly premium. In exchange, (they were) promised… a respectable funeral and burial…”

But this was the ‘wrong’ way to be self-sufficient:

“Although Stoll had intended that the War Seal residents practice self-help, he meant them to achieve independence as individuals. In an open letter to the Mansions’ tenants, he restated his principles: ‘Every tenant should be independent of every other’. He found the idea of collective self-help abhorrent. To Stoll, it smacked of communism: ‘It is impossible to countenance this communistic element with its wide notions of what comprises Independent Self-Help’… If disabled men could become independent only through mutual aid, Stoll’s cherished ideal of self-sufficiency would be discredited.”

The shocked ‘Self-Helpers’ asked not to be evicted:

“We cannot conceive that you would be so harsh as to turn into the street, disabled men, many of whom are unable to walk, solely because they are members of a mutual aid society…”

They offered to meet elsewhere, but the complete breakup of the society was necessary to appease Stoll, who had, he pointed out, spent £40,000 (almost £3.5 million today) to found the home. 

Former members soon wrote letters assuring him they’d disavowed the ideas underpinning the Self-Help Society:

“I think this communistic element should be removed from here, for myself and family we make no friends here. But keep ourselves to ourselves.”

Another wrote to say:

“We do not mix with any of the tenants except just to pass the time and day.”

Stoll mansions or the war seal mansions shown post second world war
The Stoll estate shown after the Second World War – and, given the car in the background, possibly photographed in the 60s or 70s (image: stoll.org.uk)

Enham ‘Village Centre’ (now Enham Trust) on the other hand, was founded on “(t)he great idea… of the communistic spirit… (and instilling the sense of) a great big family, all doing (its) best to help each other”.

Essentially, Cohen tells us, “(f)rom model bungalows to the ‘absence of harassing regulations’, Enham sought to foster individual initiative and collective life”. It too would do this through purpose-built housing based around village workplaces.

But here too dispute arose between management and workers/residents. 

When one ex-soldier put up a British Legion sign (to start a branch there) the manager told him to get rid of it because it was too large. He refused and was evicted. 

This provoked a strike, which in turn led to the firing/eviction of the strikers. 

Most apologised and were allowed to stay, except for ten ringleaders. These ten were then offered residence within the homes of others in the village, and so the entire estate was threatened with eviction. 

The back and forth continued, but eventually larger forces cast the tie-breaking vote. The Great Depression had arrived in Britain:

“This depression (the management noted) has had one good effect, it has brought home to the men very forcibly how great is the advantage they are receiving by being at Enham.”

As unfair as the economic situation was on residents, the behaviours they exhibited in their despair must also have been very trying for the poor staff. Sometimes…

“They insulted the orderlies and criticized the nurses. They refused medical treatment. They ‘cadged’ for drinks in pubs… the men (might then drink) their pensions on the day the money arrived and returned to the Home belligerent and even dangerous. Ordered to quieten down and return to the ward, (one patient) ‘threatened to bash (the orderly’s) brains out’. After the commandant severely reprimanded ex-private William Macey, a miner with three children, for rudeness to a nurse, he responded with ‘insolence’—‘They’d better put me where they want us all to go: the Workhouse’.”

There are other accounts like this:

“William Betts—paralyzed at Gallipoli, confined to a wheelchair—threatened two orderlies with a three-feet-long plank after they refused to let him enter the building in his tricycle chair. Three months later, an inebriated Betts attempted to kill the night orderly with a kitchen knife. Called in to explain his rage, Betts said only that ‘he was fed up with everything’.”

Betts was removed from the home, which in many ways seems understandable, though Cohen probes further:

“Still a young man and unmarried, Betts had been a farmer and a keen sportsman. That the Home’s activities [Patients: Smelling Competition; Orderlies: Egg and Spoon Race; Patients: Needle Threading and Button Sewing; Orderlies: Sack Race; Patients: Pinning on the Donkey’s Tail; Nurses: 100 Yards Race] could not assuage (Bett’s) sorrow was a possibility never acknowledged.”

Playing floor volleyball with Prince Harry does seem like it would have been rather more fun.

But again, this aspect of the disabled ex-serviceman’s experience, though important to know about and appreciate, didn’t represent the whole enterprise either, as this clearly heartfelt letter to Oswald Stoll makes clear:

“To lose you, Sir, would be to lose the Greatest Friend the British Soldier ever had… it is to me Sir very difficult to express in writing my appreciation for your kindness in thinking of my comfort and happiness, also that of my wife and children.”

Another said towards the end of his life that remembering the level of care he had received in a private convalescent home had “made life worth living again”.

Stoll, or war seal foundation, residents and staff in 1920
Stoll residents and staff in 1920 (image: stoll.org.uk)

And the even more optimistic take on the whole story of early rehabilitation is that, during and after the Second World War, the right formula seems to have finally emerged. 

As it happens, the term ‘rehabilitation’ itself came into vogue in the early 1940s. And it turned out to be broad enough to support a number of different objectives, as Julie Anderson explains in ‘War, disability and rehabilitation in Britain’:

“For the Ministry of Labour and National Service, rehabilitation was about making good use of available manpower for industry. The War Office was able to deploy the Forces and reuse them even after they had been injured… (and as) well as a return to the best possible health, notwithstanding residual disability, fundamental consideration was also given to the injured person’s economic capacity as a worker or as part of the war effort. The State (therefore) considered the return of those injured or with residual disability to a ‘normal’ life a ‘national duty’.” 

In other words, there was a certain amount of enlightened self-interest in all of this that just so happened to overlap with the benefits it conferred on the disabled:

“It was clear that the nation could not afford to service the needs of invalids… The State theoretically, and in many cases materially, provided a new way of life for those that worked hard to restore their bodies to the highest levels of functionality. Rehabilitation was effectively a method of man management, adopted from contemporary modes of management that had become popular throughout the 1920s and 1930s, one of which was the maintenance of a healthy workforce and the limitation of costly time spent away from work. Wartime conditions favoured these systems of management, and they were necessary to ensure that the war machine was stoked with a requisite number of bodies. The legacy of rehabilitative therapy in the Second World War was in the scale of its use, its systems and administration, and its wide application to injuries and disabilities.”

Or, as the 1942 Tomlinson Report put it:

“…a disabled person represents a double loss to the community, vis. a reduction of the total productive capacity and an increase in the cost of maintenance and remedial services, the restoration of the disabled person to productive employment will be an economic advantage.”

The report called for a concerted effort by doctors, voluntary organisations and (this time) the government to bring this about. 

Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery at Enham-Alamein, March 1948
WW2 icon Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery at ‘Enham-Alamein’ in 1948 – Enham was renamed after his victory in Egypt because of a donation from the post-war Egyptian government (image: Enham Trust)

Another important lesson of the Second World War was that, in some ways, being ‘disabled’ could be enabling if an enlightened society evolved its attitudes. 

For example, the noise inherent in some parts of the munitions manufacturing process, combined with the difficulty of coming up with effective ear-protection equipment, made deaf people ideal for these jobs. In fact, in general:

“Disabled people made important contributions to the war, and their value as workers signalled a change in perception of disabled people’s abilities.”

And some inventive methods were devised to get around the less enabling aspects of, for example, being deaf. Wardens might pull on strings attached to the toes of sleeping workers that dangled out of windows when air-raid sirens went off; and, in other instances, pet dogs might jump up down to get workers’ attention.

World War Two might be thought of in economic terms as an enormous stimulus package, finally helping to end the Great Depression. And against this backdrop, the sudden increase in demand and consequent …

“… labour shortage provided disabled people the space to demonstrate their value as workers. Nevertheless, voluntary services were still important to support disabled people, and their function shifted to provide an additional level of support that augmented the basic provision of the State. The role of charitable and voluntary organisations continued to be important, and despite the burgeoning welfare state, voluntary associations continued to proliferate and became more focused on a single disability, or provided alternative services to what the State was able to supply. Legislation including the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act, National Assistance Act and National Health Act gave disabled people a level of support that had not previously been available to them. Ministries continued to cooperate to ensure that rehabilitation took place, and hospitals and rehabilitation centres became partners in ensuring that functionality, both physical and mental, was restored in the main to injured workers, who were the new focus of rehabilitation therapy.”

In short, Britain had learnt to get the best of both worlds, a legacy we are fortunate to enjoy today: government funding combined with charitable assistance; and the grand visions of ambitious philanthropists like Stoll balanced with the desires of disabled former service personnel for personal recovery and independence, and for personalised rehab.

It might be said, in fact, that the spirit and practice of the Invictus Games has exceeded even this – by championing the personal success and heroism of those who’ve become an important group of athletes in their own rights. 

One can only hope and be optimistic about the fact that the rehabilitation and healing of wounded veterans will only continue to improve in future and that any sense of exclusion due to other people's attitudes is consigned to history.

For more of the Forces Network’s coverage of the Invictus Games, click here

For more on the history of rehabilitation, read ‘War Come Home: Disabled Veterans in Britain and Germany, 1914-1939’ by Deborah Cohen and ‘War, disability and rehabilitation in Britain: ‘Soul of a nation’ by Julie Anderson.

Visit Stoll.org.uk and enhamtrust.org.uk to find out more about their work with disabled people today. Thanks to staff at both for assistance in finding pictures for this article.

Image of the Star and Garter Home at Richmond by George Tsiagalakis

Amputees going through various kinds of early rehabilitation

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