In Britain, there were victory parades in London and other big cities to celebrate both the end of the war and the return of the men. But most simply returned home to their everyday life, as their contract only conditioned them to fight for three years or until the end of the war (whichever came first).
The soldier that came back in 1918 was very different from the man who left for war four years before.
In Britain, there were three distinct types of soldier to be found in the infantry:
- The so-called “Old Contemptibles“, who had been professional soldiers or reservists upon the war’s outbreak. Many such men were in their thirties or forties when the summer of 1914 drew to a close, and some boasted relevant combat experience from the Second Boer War. These men comprised the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force that landed in France and Flanders in August of 1914; at the time they constituted six infantry divisions split between I (Haig) and II (Smith-Dorrien) Corps.
- The men of “Kitchener’s Army“, the massive infantry apparatus built from the volunteers of the first wave of recruitment. This is an important distinction that I’ll be examining more in a moment: from the first, there was no program of conscription for the British infantry. The battalions that were raised were voluntary, and were very often comprised along local/professional lines for the sake of convenience. The practical consequence of this is that you’d have a regiment like the East Surreys (for example) comprised almost entirely of men from East Surrey, or the Artists Rifles comprised largely of… well, you get the idea. Entire villages and towns worth of men went off to fight in these battalions side by side, and the spirit of familiar camaraderie that prevailed in them saw them referred to as the “Pals’ Battalions.” More on why this matters in a moment, as I said. Anyway, whereas the men of the Old Contemptibles arrived in France more or less immediately upon the war’s outbreak, Kitchener’s Mob took a considerable amount of time to equip and train — often with less than satisfactory results, but there’s no sense in throwing about blame at this stage. The bulk of those trained up in this group began to arrive on the Western Front in the spring of 1915 — in time for Second Ypres, and eventually Loos.
- Finally, the men of the post-conscription recruitment drive. Conscription was formally enacted as of 1 January 1916, and the men inducted into the infantry through this drive first started to arrive on the Front in the late summer of that year. A further crucial difference prevailed: the “Pals’ Battalions” structure was largely abandoned, and conscripts were instead usually assigned to battalions as the need for them arose.
So, I stress these differences (to finally come to the point) because they would produce remarkably different sorts of veteran. Let’s examine some implications.
|Army||Rough Age in 1914||Rough Age in 1918||Active Service Duration||Character|
|Contemptibles||30-40||34-44||~52 Months||Professional, Voluntary|
|Kitchener’s||17-18||21-22||~43 Months||Civilian, Voluntary|
|Conscripts||15-16||19-20||~29 Months||Civilian, Duress|
Let us consider some implications, even if only sketchy ones.
Those in the first wave had survived a grinder of unparalleled proportions, and their first taste of the war’s true flavor would have come with the disastrous Retreat from Mons. No longer young men to begin with, 4.25 years of grueling conditions would have taken an enormous physical and mental toll upon them. Having been professional soldiers at the war’s outset, some would choose to continue serving in this capacity now that it was over — but this was a difficult prospect in the great national rush to demobilization. Positions in the rapidly shrinking peacetime army were hard to secure and even harder to hold, and many of these veterans found themselves demobbed (though honorably) whether they wished it or not. They then found themselves forced to seek new employment after (in some cases) two decades of army life, and the difficulties this posed would have been considerable. There were literal millions of demobbed soldiers searching for the same jobs, and most firms would balk at the notion of hiring an exhausted 40-year-old when there were so many millions of men at half the age begging to be taken on. These are stories that did not always end happily. In any case, the appalling casualties suffered by this particular wave of the infantry ensured that they did not constitute a very large portion of surviving veterans after the war. As Robin Neillands notes in The Old Contemptibles (2004), “the British Official History gives the casualties from the start of the campaign in August 1914 to the end of First Ypres in November as 89,864 men killed, wounded or missing. It notes also that ‘the greatest part of this loss had fallen on the infantry of the first seven divisions [the six infantry divisions I mentioned plus one cavalry division], which originally numbered only 84,000 men'” (328-29).
This original number would only grow to a total of 160,000 by the end of 1914 — still better than 50% casualties. By means of useful comparison, the French mustered an army of 1,071,000 within the first days of the war, while the initial German army of 850,000 swelled to 4,300,000 within a few weeks. Even “brave little Belgium” could boast an initial army of 350,000 (37). The BEF started small, and suffered an appalling proportion of casualties by any metric. Many of the men left over were moved into training positions as the second wave began to train up — but more on that below.
Those in the second wave served a similar stretch to their earlier professional counterparts, but with some considerable practical and psychological differences. Their first taste of combat would likely have been the appalling terror of Second Ypres (with its corresponding first deployment of poison gas) or the catastrophic failure that was the Battle of Loos. This is not a cheerful tone to set, and it was only made worse by the situation of the Pals’ Battalions. Because of the way in which these battalions were constructed, a particularly bad day for one of them could result in the functional destruction of an entire town’s worth of men. This, in part, is responsible for the idea of the “lost generation” — in many villages and towns throughout the isles, this was very literally the case. These veterans, then, would carry with them the scars of having (in many cases) lost every friend or even nodding acquaintance they had ever had, often over the course of a single day. Though still relatively young, they returned to uncertain prospects and with a host of physical and mental ailments. The prevalence of PTSD among veterans of this sort, but it is also worth noting the high rate of respiratory ailments and chronic pain that afflicted them as well — not very helpful when looking for jobs in industry.
Less happily still, many of those who had been most eager to enlist in the first place had done so due to a lack of employment prospects elsewhere, and because the life that the army provided would be a step-up from what they might otherwise expect. It’s amazing to consider that army life (in spite of its dangers) actually constituted a real improvement recreationally, vocationally and even nutritionally for many of those who enlisted, but this was very often the case. With the war over, however, and the great demobilization in progress, these men, too, had to find new jobs — and they were not often available. A final note about this group: a combination of patriotic fervor, the opportunities offered by the soldier’s life, and a very lax system of official scrutiny led to many under-aged boys enlisting as adults. Such boys were scarcely ever to be found among the Old Contemptibles (for reasons I hope are obvious), and the census records kept by the government formed a more reliable means of age verification when it came to distributing conscription cards in the third wave, but all that was required of those volunteering from 1914 onward was the declaration by oath that the man was over the age of 18 — that’s it. Though it’s impossible to get a hard number, it’s estimated that as many as 250,000 such under-aged volunteers served in the British infantry throughout the war. Most joined up at 17, unwilling to wait; some were as young as 15 or 16. The youngest of which we have record, a Pvt. S. Lewis, was a mere 12 years old when he arrived on the Somme. He survived, as best we can tell, and went on to open a pub, live through the second war, and die in the fullness of his years in the 1960s — but many did not. (See Richard van Emden’s Boy Soldiers of the Great War for more on this subject.)
Finally, those in the third wave may have been in the hardest place of all. In addition to all of the challenges I’ve already noted above, these poor souls had the misfortune to have had their first tastes of combat on the Somme. Not necessarily at its supremely troubled opening, of which today is the 97th anniversary, but throughout that long, frustrating slog all the same — through the wet summer, into the frozen winter, and finally into its quiet and (apparently) consequence-less conclusion. This, too, is a hard place to start one’s career as a fighting man — and to have it followed up by Passchendaele and the German Spring Offensive of 1918 does no favors either. Another crucial difference between this group of veterans and those above is that many of them had very much wished to have nothing to do with the war at all. While many of those conscripted in 1916 would have gone willingly enough in 1914 if only they had been older, there were many more still for whom their lack of a uniform after 2.5 years of war was a very conscious choice. They were conscripted against their will, sent off in resentment or fear, trained in arts they did not wish to learn, deployed among strangers, and then subjected to all of the difficulties and boredom and thrills of the war that the first two waves experienced without any of the small mitigation of having chosen to. If we wish to find at least one of the roots of the spirit of “disillusion” that blossomed so aggressively from 1927 through 1933, we may look with interest to this generation.
Some final notes before concluding.
A serious consideration in the post-war employment market was that of women. During the war, women had risen to the nation’s call in a tremendous way and had provided crucial labor in industry of all sorts — and not just those focused on the manufacture of weapons. While many such women found themselves being let go at the war’s conclusion as the production of artillery and whatnot inevitably wound down, those in industries that would remain prolific (such as textiles, metal-working, food distribution, and so on) were not so willing to simply see themselves sent back to their former situations. Many of their employers agreed, having come to recognize their talents and being unwilling to sacrifice experienced labor to give the jobs to men who had spent the last four years doing nothing of the sort. A step forward for sexual equality it certainly was, but it also carried the unfortunate consequence that many of the men who went off to war returned to a country in which jobs that might once have been guaranteed for them would never be theirs again.
A variety of groups tried to ameliorate these problems in different ways. The Red Cross and the YMCA continued to serve as vital support networks for veterans, offering shelter, employment (when it could be found), entertainment and a means of keeping in touch with erstwhile colleagues and finding out about new opportunities. New organizations came into being in the midst of this as well; the main reason for the founding of the Royal British Legion, for example, was to help alleviate the hardships being faced by veterans who returned to a country that seemed no longer to hold a place for them.
It may surprise a modern reader to learn of it, but Sir Douglas Haig was instrumental in the founding of this charitable group, among several others, and devoted most of his public energies until the end of his life to its service. He flatly refused to allow separate Legions to be created for officers and for other ranks, believing that the wartime spirit of mutual respect and utility must be maintained, and refused the reward of a viscountcy after the war until then-Prime Minister David Lloyd George agreed to create a more substantial network of support for veterans. The Legion is still widely known and popular, and chapters of it operate both in the United Kingdom and in many those countries that were imperial dominions during the war. Somewhat less known are the Haig Homes for ex-servicemen, which Haig’s estate helped endow at his request, and the Haig Fund — now known more simply as the Poppy Appeal. Gary Sheffield’s The Chief: Douglas Haig and the British Army (2011) has much more to say on this subject, among countless others.
(A word or two should be said about the programs in place for disabled veterans returning home, but I am much less qualified to speak on it than I am on other matters. Let it suffice to say that there were large-scale governmental training programs set up to teach veterans with a variety of disabilities how to master trades that they could practice even in spite of whatever disability they then bore. Basket-weaving, sewing, painting and so on were popular choices for those who had lost the use of one or both their legs; other possibilities existed for those without arms, or who were blind, but I know little about them myself.)
An Iranian soldier looks out over the desert, darkened under clouds of burning oil set alight by Iraqi forces in 1990.
Werner Herzog made a great movie about these fires, Lessons of Darkness.