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The long shadow

Professor Jay Winter on war wounds, pensions and how the war came home to Australia.
LAURA JAMES: Over a million people were affected by gas during the First World War, Samuel Rolfe, ‘the man in the bath’, amongst them. And these disabilities, they continued to suffer from them for years after the fighting ended. Can you tell us a little bit more about how war service impacted this generation?
JAY WINTER: The men who fought in the first World War had roughly a 50% chance of being casualties. Roughly one in six were killed, possibly another, maybe, one in four was wounded or made a prisoner of war. So if you put three men in a line somewhere in Australia in 1915, and they were all going to go, one of those three was going to be either killed or severely wounded. And two of those three would have something wrong with them by the time they got back.
LAURA JAMES: And it seems like those disabilities continued to become more severe as time went on, as well.
JAY WINTER: One of the most extraordinary features of veterans politics is the claim that there was a burnt out generation. Namely that people who did not serve in the war, survived conditions that those who served in war died from. The problem is it’s impossible to prove. Almost everyone knows that military service took years off the good health and well-being of the men who fought. But separating the impact of war from the impact of mere time is almost impossible. Especially given malnutrition among certain sections of the Australian population that went to war, the incidence of something like tuberculosis might very well be war-related to gas attacks, it might not.
The particular issue of the long shadow of gas, though, is an extraordinary story. The reason is that gas was not a great killer. It was a torturer of the men who went to war. And one of the reasons why it was not lethal is because of the rain on the Western Front, and namely if it was at all moist, the gas would cling to the ground. And then if the wind changed, and a rainstorm in the spring, what you’d find is that those shelling you where those who now had the gas in their ranks. So it was an uncontrollable weapon. It probably damaged 97% of the men who were afflicted by it, but killed only 3%. It wasn’t a killer.
But it made battle much worse than it had ever been before. And in addition, the terror of gas changed the nature of surrender. If a military unit had a gas barrage hit it, they couldn’t surrender. The laws of war make surrender an honourable proposition, but gas took that honourable option and simply made it impossible for those so afflicted. After the war, soldiers who had been gassed were recognised as those deserving of pensions. But over time in almost all countries– not in all, but in almost all countries, especially the Anglo-Saxon ones– their claims were reduced time and again.
And the mean-spirited, miserly, cost-cutting action of finance committees of pensions organisations virtually all over the world, reduced to poverty those who had been reduced by war. It’s, I think, a general truth that those who suffered from gas wounds were treated worse than those who suffered from physical wounds. And maybe shell-shock was worse still. But you could never prove that someone who died of tuberculosis died of war-related causes, since these respiratory infections were endemic in the population anyway.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: Talking about the state managing the repatriation process, we found time and time again that it’s also the families managing the repatriation process. But you have found, as well, that that’s often not recorded. It’s virtually unrecorded an experience. But families supported men financially, emotionally, physically. Would you agree that the families who took care, who lived with the wounded men, were just as much a victim of the Great War as the wounded men themselves?
JAY WINTER: Families paid an enormous price for the decision that their men took to go to war– voluntarily, in the Australian case, under conscription in other cases. And the way in which it operated was primarily around money. There’s one exception here that has to be recognised, since it’s so different from the Australian case. In France, the law of pensions was written by veterans themselves, and it established that when a man made a claim that he had a war-related disability, and he was, therefore, rightfully entitled to the pension, that claim was established by the fact that he made it. Hence the state had disproved the claim. In Australia, in England, in the United States, it’s the opposite.
The soldier had to prove that the condition was war-related in order for him to receive a pension. And the reason why I mentioned this in terms of families is that it’s the women who did the paperwork. Very frequently the men were too ill to conduct this guerrilla warfare with the administration. In the French case, the proportion of men who got their pensions without a quarrel is twice as high as in the Anglo-Saxon case. And it is a striking difference in citizenship. And I think primarily the reason is that Australia had a good dose of Lady Bountiful– namely of the British charitable tradition. And it meant that the civil society was a place where healing went on.
And heart of civil society is family life. So if you can imagine, thousands of men who need to process the paperwork necessary to contest the lousy decision of the last finance committee who said, you really aren’t sick because of the First World War. And yes, you were doused with gas, but you got tuberculosis for other reasons– it’s the women who deal with that. The other side of the story is much more difficult to prove, but I believe it’s just as striking. And that is the extent to which the men who were disabled took out their depression and their frustrations physically within family life.
This, occasionally, led to tragedies– one kind that the 100 Stories does talk about, but hundreds of other cases in which violence of war became violence of home. And this is a story we now know much better, I think, because medical science has advanced to see the extent to which returning soldiers are time bombs. And some of them bear scars that no one can see. But in the aftermath of the First World War, violence– domestic violence– was one of the prices that women had to pay for the decision of their men to fight, and for the miserly treatment that they got in the inter-war depression and afterwards.
The other side of this– which is, I think, something to be done in the future and that Michael Roper has been looking into– is what does it look like to children of a father who comes back broken? I know from the founding of the Historial de la Grande Guerre in France that the elderly gentleman who asked me to help design this did so because his father came back from the Battle of the Somme without a scratch on him, but a broken man. And he used to beat his son in his childhood.
The man in his retirement, Max Lejeune, financed the basis of the Historial de la Grande Guerre in order to forgive his father for the harshness of violence that he was subjected to in the 1920s. I think this is a– as I say 100 stories of the world as a whole. It is amazing how many men retained within them the violence that they had learned to inflict on other human beings, and that was inflicted on them. If there is a heroic story to the First World War– and frequently I doubt it– it is the laconic, stoical acceptance of the damage war does to people. The real heroism is survival.
Not a particularly individual point, as I mentioned, war is no longer about individuals fighting other individuals, but about masses fighting them. The masses were imprinted with a certain kind of violence that should be recognised in any account of the damage the First World War caused to the societies that waged it.

Watch Professor Jay Winter discuss the long shadow of war wounds, pensions and how the war came home to Australia.

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World War 1: A History in 100 Stories

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