There has been enough written on the subject of war over the years to fill dozens of libraries, and indeed it has. The loss of life during 20th Century conflicts has never been undervalued but the cost to individuals returning from war with injuries and trauma has, perhaps, been ignored by society. Today there are charities and bodies set up to help wounded returning servicemen and women but assistance hasn’t always been so readily available for soldiers who had suffered physically and mentally whilst fighting for their country.
Following recent conflicts, the sight of returning service personnel with disabilities or amputations is all too familiar but, compared to a century earlier, their rehabilitation is smoother. Simon Weston, who suffered horrific burns during the Falklands War, became the positive face for injured and disabled ex-servicemen. Having overcome his physical scars and numerous operations he now works as a fundraiser and campaigner, criticising government cuts to defence budgets, inadequate kit and shoddy treatment of veterans. 21st Century Britain is much better equipped for the disabled be it through support groups or with greater access to facilities. Still it is charities though who act as the backstop when central government struggles to foot the bill for the rehabilitation of veterans.
The First World War was the largest ever mobilisation of forces and, with nearly 10 million casualties, the greatest loss of life in human history. This was the first major conflict to involve automatic weapons and gas with serious effects for young soldiers on the front. There were many who died or suffered serious injuries but there were also those who, despite no signs of physical injuries, suffered trauma from the high noise and stress of the battlefield. “Shell Shock” was identified in the first few months of the war and was first defined as a medical condition in 1915. Initially it was considered a physical disability of the nervous system but was later identified as mental, close to what would eventually become known as a nervous breakdown. Those struck down were initially evacuated from the front line but Generals had a very good reason for the condition to be considered mental; if injuries were not physical, combatants were seen as fit and healthy and could be returned to active duty on the front line immediately.
At the end of hostilities in 1918, the process of recovery for over a million disabled soldiers was long and protracted. Thirty years before the founding of the NHS and with central government failing to meet demand for care of wounded soldiers, there was no nationwide organisation for rehabilitation. There was a difference in perceptions between disabled soldiers and disabled civilians, between “active” and “passive” sufferers, with major health treatment (for example, prosthetic limbs) more readily available for ex-servicemen. However those with conditions such as paralysis or blindness were overlooked by the state with charities like St Dunstan’s (set up in 1915 to help blind soldiers) left to pick up the pieces.
With a country deeply in debt after the war, jobs proved hard to find, even for soldiers without disabilities and by 1922 there were over 2.5 million unemployed in Britain. In 1919 The Kings National Roll Scheme was introduced encouraging businesses to employ disabled ex-servicemen. The scheme proved a success with many disabled people finding work and feeling more integrated into society and ran until the 1940s. The Disabled Persons (Employment) Act of 1944 set up a register of disabled people (not just those from a military background) with businesses required to employ a quota from the register. Whilst Hitler was euthanizing the disabled, Britain employed over 750,000 disabled people during World War II including fighter pilot Douglas Bader who was a national hero despite having had both his legs amputated.
After World War II and the creation of the welfare state, there were still issues about the treatment of those left disabled from the conflict. In 1943 Dr Ludwig Guttman, who had fled Nazi Germany before the war, was asked to establish the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville. Serious spinal injuries at the time often led to death but Dr Guttman instigated a programme using sport as a major aspect of rehabilitation. “Paraplegia is not the end of the way. It is the beginning of a new life,” he told his patients. He organised a series of competitions to coincide with the 1948 London Olympics, an event which eventually led to the creation of the Paralympic Games.
Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn was keen to tell the story of returning servicemen dealing with life back in the USA. The 1946 film “The Best Years Of Our Lives” featured a bona fide movie star in Frederic March but also introduced Harold Russell to cinema goers, a US army serviceman who had lost both his hands in a military training accident. The film proved not only a huge commercial hit, it also won numerous Oscars with Russell, who had no previous acting experience, a surprising yet popular winner as Best Supporting Actor. The template of returning war heroes struggling with disability and disaffectedness was later utilised in various films dealing with veterans of the Vietnam war. “Coming Home” and “Born On The Fourth Of July” were commercial and critical successes, although both use able bodied star actors in paraplegic roles.
The condition Gulf War Syndrome made the headlines in the mid 1990s, many years after the first Gulf War had ended. Troops from Britain and the USA who had served in Operation Desert Storm were showing signs of ill health which they claimed were down to conditions they suffered. 1500 people in Britain still claim war pensions based on the condition although there may be many more people who are suffering in silence. In the same way as “Shell Shock” was never universally accepted in World War I, those suffering from the effects of Gulf War Syndrome have never truly been acknowledged, although research suggests exposure to nerve gas and vaccinations could be a defining factor.
Today, groups such as ‘Help For Heroes’ are left to pick up the pieces and offer support to returning servicemen with large recovery facilities in Colchester, Tidworth and Catterick. The same politicians who willingly send troops into battle still show a reluctance to help when the same troops need financial support for treatments. In 2013 a ‘Help For Heroes’ Naval Service Recovery Centre will be opening in 2013 in Plymouth, a city which had previously housed a Royal Naval Hospital for over 200 years before being closed down by the government in 1995. Under austerity, soldiers who lose limbs may not be automatically entitled to disability benefits. This is a financial cut that many people argue dishonours those troops who suffer horrendous injuries and disrespects those who lay down their lives for their country. It is sadly not just a modern trend.
The cost of war cannot and should not simply be measured in financial terms but war itself is often fought on nothing more than a balance sheet. The last century has seen horrific conflicts across the globe with countless soldiers failing to return or doing so with horrific scars, either physical or mental. The story of soldier Marc Ormrod, a triple amputee veteran of the Afghanistan war who needed to remortgage his home to pay for prosthetic limbs, is a sad reflection on the government’s attitude to financing rehabilitation and austerity cuts are hitting wounded ex-servicemen hard. The hardships faced by soldiers, their families and their communities in the years that follow war are deeply personal but, without support from those who instigate wars, the healing process is a lot harder.