In early 1919 the British forces began the period of demobilisation and millions of men under arms exchanged their uniforms for civilian clothes and went home. Before them thousands of men wounded, gassed and made sick by war service had been discharged. While the loss of three quarters of million men from Great Britain created the feeling of a ‘Lost Generation‘ the truth was most of that generation came home. Home to a decade of economic collapse and tough times for those with a family, trying to survive in the depression. Others with wounds struggled on in the aftermath of the war, lungs corrupted by gas and mind and body never quite the same. Even those physically untouched by the trenches still had the mental scars of the war and while they were a tough generation with no counselling the memories of their war lingered and all too often surfaced; one veteran I knew, for example, had been gassed in 1916 and the smell of the gas was like pineapples. He could not stand that smell for the rest of his life; it sent him into a blind panic. From a wealthy family, they lost everything in the Wall Street Crash and he found himself working in Joe Lyons tea shop, opening tins of pineapple chunks. But it kept his family from poverty so he stuck it, like he stuck three years on the Western Front.
We end this series of posts on Remembrance with an image of an unknown soldier. He wears no uniform, just typical clothes of a young man of the 1920s. But on his lapel is a badge which gives us a clue to what he once had been – the Silver War Badge. Issued to all those discharged due to wounds and sickness caused by active service it was worn as a badge of pride among Great War veterans. In some ways men like this are part of a huge anonymous Great War army – those who survived, the forgotten wounded, the majority. A hundred years after the Great War it is easy to remember the dead, and on Remembrance Sunday we should do that – but we should also recall the survivors: men who saw the best and the worst of the war, achieved it’s ultimate now forgotten victory and came home to a life that must have seemed unreal compared to the experience of World War One. The debt we owe that generation is not to see them as victims, but to recognise what they did, what they saw and suffered and how it changed Britain forever. We Will Remember Them… Them All.
With the Somme anniversary taking place last weekend, the Somme theme continues this week with an unusual post on Great War Photos; an image and an audio clip of a Great War veteran talking about the Somme.
The Liverpool Pals were formed in Liverpool in September 1914 as Lord Derby’s own ‘private army’ until they were taken over by the War Office. They recruited widely across the city reflecting it’s varied social nature in a way that no other formation did between 1914 and 1918. The battalions wore their own special badge, seen in this photo of them in training in 1915, which following the Derby family’s coat of arms – officially they were part of the King’s Liverpool Regiment. The Pals crossed to France in 1915 and served with the 30th Division in the quiet months on the Somme front before going into action on 1st July 1916 in the attack on Montauban. One of their battalions was on the extreme right flank of the British Army on the Somme and went over linking arms with their French comrades. The battalions achieved all their objectives on the first – some of the few who did – but a few weeks later lost heavily in the fighting for Guillemont. While the number of original Pals dwindled with each passing month, the battalions continued to serve until the end of the war.
One of the original Liverpool Pals was E.G. Williams. A student interested in art and watercolour painting, Williams joined the Pals in 1914 and fought with them on the Somme, later being taken prisoner in 1918. He was one of several hundred Great War veterans I interviewed in the 1980s and this recording dates from that period, here talking about the 1st July 1916. In the clip he refers to a painting, one for more than 20 he did during the war, which he later donated to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Ending a brief look at some portraits this week we finish with this post-war image of a Great War veteran. Taken sometime in the 1920s, most likely in the man’s back garden of his house, he is dressed like any other man of the period – but tucked away on his waistcoat are the ribbons of the British War & Victory medals, the standard campaign medals for the Great War, and on his lapel the badge of Comrades of the Great War. He has a very expressive face and one wonders what his war had been and where; what had he seen and endured? Men like this survived, came home and tried to continue with a normal family life, but the experience of the war was always there somewhere; rarely would it surface with those who had never been there themselves – a sort of conspiracy of silence, which historian Professor Peter Doyle has written about on his blog. A silence today only hinted at with images like this.
It is easy to believe that battlefield tourism is a modern phenomena but in terms of the Great War it began as early as 1919 with the publication of the first battlefield guide. Today the huge number of travellers who went to France and Flanders in the 1920s and 30s is forgotten; at one peak it was estimated than more than 300,000 people travelled to the battlefields in one year, for example.
This image comes from a small album owned by a veteran of the 11th Battalion Suffolk Regiment (Cambridgeshire). The Cambs battalion took heavy casualties at La Boisselle on 1st July 1916 – the First Day of the Battle of the Somme – and fought in many other engagements on the Somme, Arras, Ypres and Hindenburg Line. This veteran returned to the battlefields twice in the 30s and in 1936 went on a special pilgrimage with his old comrades of the 11th Suffolks to attend ceremonies on the Somme for 1st July 1936 – the 20th Anniversary.
Our image of Great War veterans is now of old men, but here they are middle-aged in their 40s. There are some decorated men among them; one has a Military Cross and another a Military Medal. The older man in the middle of the group has campaign medals going back to the Boer War. The white disk they are all wearing has a chequer-board in the middle; the insignia of the 34th Division whose memorial they are standing in front of and with whom the 11th Suffolks served.
It is a poignant reminder that when we visit the Somme, we travel in the footsteps of earlier pilgrims.