What Tommy Did Next: Veterans’ Activities and Organisations of the First World War, in the UK and Beyond

On 18 March 2017 the Men, Women and Care project team travelled to Edinburgh for ‘What Tommy Did Next’, a one-day symposium hosted by the Centre for the Study of Modern Conflict, University of Edinburgh. The conference, whose theme was ‘Veterans’ Activities and Organisations of the First World War, in the UK and Beyond’, explored the experiences of ex-servicemen and women after the war.

The day opened with a keynote from Professor Jay Winter, entitled ‘The Silences of the Men Who Served’. In this paper he discussed the importance of silences in understanding experiences and memories of the First World War, and raised the question of how historians can, and should, interpret these silences. Winter answered the question of ‘What Tommy Did Next’ by pointing out that after their war service, soldiers returned to their homes and families. Silences, he demonstrated, were an important part of the ways in which families understood and dealt with men’s (and women’s) experiences in the war, and lies and myths (which can be seen as forms of silence) became a necessary part of personal remembrance of the war, and of veterans’ roles in the conflict. Soldiers, Winter noted, could also be silenced, particularly those with psychological conditions, and he urged researchers to look for, and to realise the importance of, silences in accounts and histories of the war. Following on from this keynote silences and silencing were a recurring theme throughout the day’s discussions.

The First World War Network then made their national launch. The AHRC funded Network (whose steering committee members include Dr Nick Mansfield, Dr Christopher Phillips, Philippa Read, Dr David Swift, and Dr Oliver Wilkinson) aims to connect postgraduate and early career researchers studying aspects of the First World War. Members of the steering committee discussed the benefits of joining the Network, which will foster collaboration between researchers, provide opportunities for training, funding, and to work with non-academic partners. Overall, the FWW Network promises the establishment of a supportive community which brings together and promotes a variety of First World War research.

The Men, Women and Care panel, chaired by Bethany Rowley, examined disabled and disfigured ex-servicemen’s local and domestic experiences of reintegration, linking nicely to the discussion of war experience and the family within the keynote address. Dr Jessica Meyer first introduced Men, Women and Care, our research interests and aims, and the database we are creating. Meyer’s paper analysed a case study from one of the PIN 26 files – Sergeant Arnold Loosemore, VC – and explored the ways in which the local community responded to his disability. She highlighted Loosemore’s public role and the visibility of his disabled body within the community, and considered the social and cultural impacts of such visible reminders of the war at a local level.

Next, Alexia Moncrief explored examples of state intervention in instances of post-war family breakdown. Using three cases from PIN 26, she explored how the state, through the administering of pensions, showed a willingness to involve themselves in the private lives and domestic disputes of ex-servicemen, and to fulfil a claimant’s familial obligations where they found his actions wanting.

My own paper examined the domestic reintegration of facially-wounded veterans, using a case study of Sergeant Reginald Evans, DCM. This paper challenged common wartime and post-war representations of family rejection and social isolation amongst facially-wounded men, and aimed to demonstrate that many facially-injured veterans were able to conform to traditional models of domesticity. As I showed, many of these men were able to reconcile their altered appearances with their identities as sons and husbands, to form new relationships, and reintegrate into local communities after being wounded. Whilst not suggesting that local and domestic reintegration was always smooth or without difficulty, this paper argued that families and local communities were key to the rehabilitation of disfigured men, many of whom established lives as civilians in post-war Britain.

The day was divided into three sessions, each with three parallel panels. Whilst all the panels offered fascinating research topics, including papers on post-war Scotland, Ireland, and Czechoslovakia, the first panel I attended was ‘Ex-servicewomen and Veteran Organisations in Interwar France and Britain’, which featured papers from Professor Alison Fell (University of Leeds), Philippa Read (University of Leeds), and Dr Aimee Fox-Godden (King’s College London). This panel examined the post-war activities of women, and Fell and Read explored how women who had an active role in the conflict used the concept of themselves as ‘veterans’ to foster a collective identity, and to highlight and validate their wartime roles. Fox-Godden’s examination of the Royal British Legion’s Women’s Section dealt with the issue of exclusionary practices within the organisation, and explored the ways in which women contested their marginalised status. This panel was particularly interesting as it raised questions about the ways in which women understood and utilised their roles in wartime, how they created spaces (imagined or real) of female comradeship and support, and how gender relations and boundaries were negotiated and enforced after the war.

The second panel I attended included papers from Dr Alice Brumby (University of Huddersfield), Jennifer Farquharson (Glasgow Caledonian University), and Dr Michael Robinson (University of Liverpool), and dealt with issues around ‘Rehabilitation, Resilience and Responses: Disabled Veterans and Institutionalisation in England, Scotland and Ireland’. Looking at hospital magazines as a means of interpreting servicemen’s responses to their wartime experiences and post-war readjustment, Brumby argued that soldier-patient’s use of satire and humour reflects the sense of identity formed amongst patients, and helped to maintain morale and resilience within hospital communities. Farquharson examined the marginalisation of psychologically-wounded servicemen in Scotland’s civilian asylums, challenging the concept of a hierarchy of treatment which placed ex-servicemen in privileged positions. She argued that in civilian asylums, patients’ war services, and the supposed distinction between ex-servicemen and ‘ordinary’ patients, were largely overlooked. Finally, Robinson analysed the ways in which the socio-political environment of the Irish Civil War affected care provision for disabled veterans in Ireland. He demonstrated how the rehabilitation of disabled ex-servicemen was compromised by disruptions in the administration of medical treatment and financial allowances, caused by IRA violence and intimidation against Ministry of Pension officials. This panel highlighted a number of important issues concerning the perception and provision of state and institutional care, and raised a number of questions to consider in my own research.

Thanks to all the organisers (from the University of Edinburgh: Dr David Kaufman, Mike Hally, Anita Klinger, Patrick Warr, Dr Cathy Howieson, Hayley Mathers; Edinburgh Napier University: Rachel McDonald, Maria Gueli; University of Central Lancashire: Dr Nick Mansfield; University of Wolverhampton: Dr Oliver Wilkinson), who put together a truly enjoyable symposium, which highlighted a range of fascinating research being undertaken on the post-war lives and activities of ex-servicemen and women, within and beyond the UK.

 

More information about the day’s events can be found on twitter at @TommyDidNext and by searching #WTDN17, and details of the conference and online resources are available at: www.what-tommy-did-next.org.uk

Details of the First World War Network can be found on their website: https://fwwnetwork.wordpress.com, and twitter account: @FwwNetwork