Religious Charities, Artificial Limbs and The State.

As my research progress, I am beginning to understand that the relationship between religious charities and disabled ex-servicemen of the First World War is anything but simple. With the predominant absence of this topic in the religious and social history of the war, I had assumed that Christian organisations must have abandoned their duty of care to the sick and the disadvantaged as expressed in the Bible. If not, surely there would have been as much written about religious charities and disability rehabilitation as there has been about charities that did not identify as religious? Deborah Cohen’s analysis of St Dunstan’s for the Blind and Fiona Reid’s assessment of the Ex-Serviceman’s Association are examples of charities that historians have previously examined.

Only six months into my research, I cannot yet discount this argument, but, my visits to various archives, such as the Toc H (a Christian charity founded during the war) Archive at Birmingham, The West Yorkshire Archives, National Archives and the Liddle and Bamji First World War Collections here in Leeds, have thrown up more questions than they have answered in this regard. Did the relationship between charities and the state and/ or the economic position of both charities and the state hinder the growth of religious disability charities after the war, for example? Or was it just that the war resulted in a mass decline of individual and social faith, as is argued by Rich Scwitzer and the Modernist Model of religion? And, importantly, what happened to the care of disabled veterans after they had been successfully rehabilitated in the conventional sense? More specifically, who was responsible for repairing and replacing artificial limbs for a man injured because he was prepared to give his life in the war, but did not qualify for a war pension – the individual, a charity or the state?

The latter question had never occurred to me before my most recent visit to the National Archives. On this trip I came across file PIN38/429: the ‘Repair and Renewal of Artificial Limbs in Non-Attributable Cases – Arrangement with BRCS and Lord Kitchener’s National Memorial Fund 1921-1922’. It transpired that the Christian British Red Cross society worked with the Christian charity, Order of St John of Jerusalem In England and the Lord Kitchener’s Memorial fund to give and renew artificial limbs. This care was also extended to ‘cases of accidents incurred while a man was actually on service (but not necessarily when fighting) or cases of injury resulting from minor breaches of discipline’(1). Surprisingly, during the Great War there were a large number of cases in which men suffered amputation owing to the accidents or to other circumstances not directly connected with the Service and in which the amputation could not be classed as attributable or aggravated. In such cases, the Ministry of Pensions in the early 1920’s was authorised to provide one artificial limb only: its renewal and repair at the public expense was not admissible.

Private M. W .H of the Northumberland Fusiliers, for example, lost his left hand and right leg. ‘While undergoing training in the North of England, the man when off duty found a hand grenade which he took to his home. Subsequently, when examining this it exploded with the results as above mentioned. It was held that M. W. H was to blame and his action was of course a breach of discipline and consequently no pension was awarded to him’(2). A letter from the Ministry of Pensions to the British Red Cross Society asked that they consider his case as ‘funds are running low’(3). The state provided M. W. H with one artificial arm and leg but were not prepared to renew, repair or care for this man further. It is important to note that they, just like any religious charity were under no obligation to help. This appears unfair as significantly, M. W. H would not have been injured if he had not been in the army. Here it was the state and not religious philanthropy that was abandoning him, and others alike.

The ‘lack of funds’ quoted here reinforces the arguments of historians Meaghan Kowalsky and Ena Elsy, that the success of rehabilitation and care schemes for disabled ex-servicemen have to be considered in the context of the British economic situation after the Armistice. This impacted the response of the state and voluntary sector. Because M. W. H was not awarded a pension, no trace of him can be found in PIN 26 (First World War Disability Pension Files): the main primary sources for the Men, Women and Care Project. Yet, the argument of the state rather than charities losing their duty of care is beginning to also show in these files. For example, I have uncovered examples of letters from charities, such as St Dunstan’s to the Board of Health and Ministry of Pensions in PIN 26 asking the state to reconsider the level/ percentage of disability awarded to individuals – charities in all these examples did not lose sight of their caring principles. It was not a lack of faith in disabled men they were coming against but the state. It will be interesting to see how this argument evolves as my research progresses.

(1) TNA: PIN38/ 429

(2) TNA: PIN38/ 429

(3) TNA: PIN38/ 429