The persistence of the First World War

Just read Simon Garfield’s edited collection of Mass Observation diarists’ reaction to the first year of the Second World War. Unsurprisingly, lots of Britons had their minds turned back to their own earlier experiences of war. And the physical effects of the war were, if not universally in evidence, then still very much present for those who had fought. Here’s ‘Pam Ashford’, an unmarried secretary at a large Glasgow shipping company with vaguely right wing views, writing about her Soroptimist club’s visit to a hospital for disabled veterans on 19 February 1940:

    ‘Today, the Soroptimist Club entertained a party from Erskine Hospital. This is a hospital for men wounded in the last war. I sat down beside a patient who turned out to be a most delightful man. His arm was in a large sling. The second man at the table was a very perky, amusing individual, who had a wound in the leg. The third man was a pitiable creature. His arms were shaking all the time, and he did not join in the conversation at all.

It was 1.10 when proceedings started, with community singing (‘Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag’ and ‘Tipperary’). The thing I noticed most on entering the room was the men’s age, and nearly all of them grey or greying. I have not seen wounded soldiers since the last war, and they were mostly young fellows then. Somehow I expected to see young fellows again today. Seldom has the passage of time been brought home so forcibly to me as today.

Conversation began with two topics – how much better the songs in the last war were, and how well the men at Erksine were fed. I asked how many men there were in the hospital, and he reckoned about 180, on the medical ward, the surgical ward, the ‘Ralston Boys’ (paralysed men from the old Ralston Hospital), and the boarders. Men are going back. They have been all right for 20 years, and then their wound opens up again.’

(S. Garfield, ed, We Are At War: The Diaries of Five Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times (London, Ebury, 2006), 173)

It’s an extraordinarily powerful image – as a new war heats up, so the wounds of a previous generation break open – but then scar tissue is fragile and vulnerable.




3 Responses to The persistence of the First World War

  1. Alan Allport says:

    Of course, for a lot of men the Second World War was their second world war. In 1945 there were still over 120,000 servicemen in HM Forces old enough to have fought in the previous conflict.

  2. […] While we are wondering about human progress, Trench Fever adds a small piece of detailed evidence that opens the door into the hidden story of wounded veterans. […]

  3. […] Forgot to write this yesterday … I blame the pre-Xmas social round! Both of these were bought after being seen elsewhere (at least the author was, in the latter case). […]

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