Demobilisation of the armed services proceeded slowly after the war had ended (far too slowly for many disgruntled, impatient and bored soldiers). Returning men not only had to rebuild disrupted relationships with loved ones but were faced with an exhausted country, class tensions and industrial conflict, poor job prospects and a run down and depleted housing stock.
A number of recently formed ex-servicemen pressure groups took up the cause of veterans’ welfare, particularly those with disabilities. The first such group was the National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers formed in September 1916, which managed to get a MP returned to parliament in 1918. In 1917 the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers was established under the leadership of the Liberal MP James Hogge to oppose the Military Service (Review of Exceptions) Act which made men previously discharged on medical grounds liable for reassessment for war service. Alarmed by the Federation’s radical rhetoric and aggressive campaigning, the War Secretary, Lord Derby, and two Conservative MPs , Lt Col Sir John Norton-Griffiths and Col Wilfred Ashley, set up, with government backing, the Comrades of the Great War in November 1917 as a less militant, confrontational organisation, more focussed on improving pensions and employment opportunities. Formed in 1919, the National Union of Ex-Servicemen and the International Union of Ex-Servicemen pursued more socialist agendas and aligned themselves with the Labour Party. As a result the British ex-servicemen organisations were divided into rival organisations with competing political allegiances.
In late 1919, a number of measures were introduced to improve the lot of veterans, including better retraining programmes, preferential treatment by local labour exchanges and the inclusion of veterans on local war pensions committees. The War Pensions (Administrative Provisions) Act 1919 established the statutory right to a pension of ‘every officer or man suffering from a disability attributable to or aggravated by naval, military, or air force service during the present war, and not due to his serious negligence or misconduct’; the statutory right was extended to widows and dependants and to nurses by the War Pensions Act of 1920.
Such measures went some way to depoliticising the plight of veterans and helped to ensure ex-servicemen’s organisations in Britain were less of threat to the established order, than they were in, for example, Germany.
In Spring 1921, the British Legion was founded, with Earl Haig as its first president, out of a merger of four organisations: the Comrades of the Great War, the Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers, the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers and the Officers’ Association. The National Union Ex-Servicemen rejected the move. The Legion sought to disentangle itself from the politicised past of veterans’ organisations. Two of its founding principles were to be ‘democratic, non-sectarian and not affiliated to or connected directly or indirectly with any political party or political organisation’ and to ‘inculcate a sense of loyalty to the Crown, community and nation and to promote unity amongst all classes’. The Legion focussed its energies on financial, welfare and employment matters (see Edgar Jones and Simon Wessely, Shell Shock to PTSD (2005)).
The war necessitated a complete overhaul of the existing system for military pensions for those left with permanent (or, indeed, temporary) disabilities. More information on the provision of pensions before and after the Naval and Military Pensions Act of 1915 can be found here. A guide to surviving sources held at Surrey History Centre and elsewhere relating to the treatment and training offered to disabled veterans can be found here. The vast majority of case files kept by the Ministry of Pensions relating to World War I veterans have been destroyed. The National Archives’ guide to its surviving holdings can be found here.
The employment of discharged servicemen, particularly the disabled, in the post war years was a contentious issue. In 1922, 600,000 out of the 1 million unemployed were ex-servicemen. As few servicemen had made sufficient contributions to qualify for unemployment benefit, the Unemployment Insurance Act of 1920 extended payment of benefits to the uninsured.
Employers were encouraged to employ disabled ex-servicemen under the National Scheme for Disabled Men: the names of those firms which took on such men were placed on the King’s National Roll. Some philanthropists responded directly to the demand for suitable employment for those with life-changing injuries: Ashtead Potters Ltd was founded by Sir Lawrence Weaver and Lady Kathleen Weaver to provide permanent employment for disabled ex-servicemen; Sir Arthur Pearson (once of Frensham), himself blind, established St Dunstan’s to retrain blinded veterans; the Ex-Services Welfare Society focussed on the enduring needs of those suffering from mental problems and in 1927 it set up the Thermega electric blanket factory in Leatherhead to provide employment and retraining for neurasthenic veterans.
Other initiatives in social reconstruction went some way to addressing the needs of veterans. Christopher Addison’s Housing and Town Planning Act, 1919, launched a programme of house building by urban and rural district councils, supported by Treasury subsidies, although to some degree this fell a victim of the high cost of materials, a shortage of manpower and economic retrenchment. The Unemployment Insurance Act 1920, extended the 1911 scheme to all workers earning up to £250 a year. Surrey, like other counties, initiated a programme with government support to create small holdings for those ex-servicemen who wished to pursue a career in agriculture. The Small Holdings and Allotments Committee of the County Council bought up suitable estates, built suitable cottage accommodation, controlled rents and provided loans to set the ex-servicemen up. Again they had to retreat from their more ambitious plans because of the post war economic environment.
The story of Private Henry Robert Stanley (1886-1958), of Addlestone, Surrey, who was awarded a war pension having been wounded at Hill 60, Ypres, in 1918, can be read by clicking here.
Times, 8 Nov 1926