First World War soldiers: life after the Armistice

What awaited First World War soldiers after the Armistice? Peter Hart reveals how those who survived the carnage coped with their mental and physical scars and the challenges of returning to a Britain that had changed for good

A wounded soldier of Company K, 110th Regiment Infantry, receives first-aid treatment from a comrade in Varennes-en-Argonne, France, 26 September 1918. (Photo by Corbis via Getty Images)
The bloody war is over! It’s over! No more slaughter, no more maiming, no more mud and blood, no more killing and disembowelling of horses and mules. No more of those hopeless dawns, with the rain chilling the spirits, no more crouching in inadequate dugouts scooped out of trench walls, no more dodging snipers' bullets, no more of that terrible shell fire. No more shovelling up of bits of men's bodies and dumping them into sandbags
Lieutenant Richard Dixon, Royal Field Artillery

This was the first reaction of most men when they heard the news of the Armistice on 11 November 1918. It seemed too good to be true. The Great War had been a truly cataclysmic event. Vast empires had fallen and millions of men had died; millions more were crippled or maimed. The fighting had continued right up to the very last minute, but now it was suddenly all over.

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British former field marshal Douglas Haig, inspects poppies before Armistice Day, October 1922. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Most men seem to have found it nigh on impossible to articulate the tangle of emotions that ran through their heads. Yet hard upon the feelings of freedom came the thoughts of what were they going to do now? Many had presumed that they would not live to see the end of the war. Part of their mental defences was the idea that they had nothing to look forward to; that as doomed men they did not have much to lose if they were killed. In a flash their mental landscape had changed.

An unreal thought was running through my mind. I had a future. It took some getting used to – this knowledge. There was a future ahead for me, something that I had not imagined for some years. All that mattered was that the war was over, and by a miracle I had come through it when so many better men had not
Lieutenant Richard Dixon, 251 Battery, 53rd Brigade, Royal Artillery

The Armistice appeared to offer a wonderful template for a painless fairy-tale future where they could live happily ever after. But had things really changed? Many of the underlying prewar problems had not disappeared with the defeat of Germany. There were still all the old international tensions, class warfare, looming economic disasters, racial hatreds and religious fanaticism to torment humanity.

But that was in the future. All most of the men serving in the British army wanted to do was to get out of khaki and safely back into their civilian lives as soon as possible. This, though, would prove to be a staggering administrative task. Millions of men would have to be returned to their former employments and if this was not controlled strictly then economic chaos and mass unemployment loomed large.

Siegfried Sassoon in uniform. (Photo by George C. Beresford/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Any demobilisation system had to be both transparently fair and carried out as soon as possible. Thus it was decided that men who were needed urgently at home to help restock the workforce of key industries would be released first, after which release would be grouped according to category and length of service – with priority for those who had volunteered early in the war.

Among thousands of bored men, chafing under a discipline that now seemed redundant, there were many disturbances which could have been easily characterised as mutiny if the bulk of officers, NCOs and men had not kept their heads while a minority of hot-heads railed and kicked against the authorities. Guardsman Horace Calvert witnessed a typical ‘spot of bother’ at Le Havre Camp in December 1918.

I saw staff officers surrounded by a lot of troops and they were telling them they wanted money paid every week, they hadn't been paid for weeks; they wanted the right to go into Le Havre; they wanted the Military Police easing up a bit on them! The rumour was around that the last of the men to be called up would be the first to be demobilised because they were the key men to get industry going. Chaps said they hadn't been home for four years and it was time they were allowed to go home. They were making a point and it was a forceful point. Everybody was in agreement apparently. There were two or three ringleaders, they were doing all the talking and waving everyone around to come and join them, there was two or three hundred there. It wasn't a mutiny – I would call it a disturbance! They managed to disperse them eventually
Guardsman Horace Calvert, Second Grenadier Guards

It was not unnatural that men resented their continued service, especially as the army soon returned to its default state: a peacetime regime where ‘spit and polish’ ruled. But these men were not ‘natural’ soldiers. They had joined for the duration of the war and for no longer. The system may have been fair enough in principle, but it was inevitable that thousands of individual cases fell through the net. In the end everyone seemed to have some reason or other to be dissatisfied within a demobilisation process that appeared to last forever.

I was so useful in this camp orderly room, that the captain wouldn't sign my papers; he wouldn't let them go through. While other chaps were getting discharged I was still stuck in this blooming camp. One day I filled up my discharge papers and slipped them in amongst several others. The captain, who very rarely read anything – he just signed it – he signed my papers and two or three days later my discharge came through. He was furious!
Private Harold Boughton

A changed world

Eventually they would all return home. Free to try and pick up the elusive traces of their civilian lives. Too much had changed: the world had changed while they were away; they had changed. As thousands flooded the employment market many men found it very difficult to get work.

I applied for a job at Whitehall, at the Ministry of Labour as a temporary clerk. I went before a man, he was chairman and a lot of bearded old men round a board. The old men were in the saddle again and you just didn't stand a chance. He said, 'I'm sorry Mr Dixon, but you've had no experience!' Why, didn't I see red! I got up on my hind legs and said, 'Pardon me, sir! But I've had more experience than anybody in this room, but the thing is it's been the wrong sort! When I joined the army in 1914, I told the recruiting sergeant I couldn't ride a horse and he said, 'We'll bloody soon teach you!' They did and they spared no pains over it! Apparently I could be fitted for war but I can't be fitted for peace! I shall know what to do another time gentlemen!
Fred Dixon

Millions of men returned home from the war to their homes, families and girlfriends. Most coped well and against all the odds managed to live reasonably happy and contented lives. Yet many men found themselves alone in a crowd. No one had really defined the nature of combat fatigue or post-traumatic stress disorder in the 1920s and there was little psychological help available. Some soldiers back from the front had simply seen too much; experienced too many horrors, to go quietly into the tranquillity of civilian life. The collation of symptoms known as shell shock was common, but barely commented on in public life.

I think it sent me crackers a bit. One day the gaffer came, he said something to me and it just got right on top of me. I grabbed hold of him by the blinking lapel of his coat and I said, 'I'll split you top to bottom!' Stupid of me. I think he thought, 'Here's a crackpot come out from the war!' I calmed down after a while
Albert Birtwhistle

A hidden world of suffering existed: a starched array of stiff upper lips, but with a dark unspoken undercurrent of men failing to cope with the pressures of civilian life and far too often resorting to casual violence. For many families the Great War did not end in 1918 – thousands of women and children bore physical and mental scars that really originated in the traumas of the battlefields.

Early plastic surgery

The badly wounded were the obvious victims. One such was Joseph Pickard who had been smashed up by a shell on Easter Sunday, 31 March 1918. He could never forget the loss of most of his nose. The evidence stared back at him every time he looked in the mirror.

Can you ever imagine being without one? I never put the bandages back on; I got a piece of plastic to put across the hole, I just covered it, I didn't have any nose. All the kids in the blinking neighbourhood had gathered: talking, looking, gawping at you. I still had this little bit of plastic stuff as a nose. I could have taken the crutch and hit the whole lot of them! I knew what they were looking at. So I turned round and went back to the hospital. I was sitting one day and I thought, 'Well, it's no good, I can stop like this for the rest of my life – I've got to face it sometime!' So I went out again – people staring – I used to turn round and look at them!
Joseph Pickard

In the end Pickard had an early form of plastic surgery when a piece of his rib cartilage was used to rebuild his nose in 1921. It would never look quite right but it was a good deal better than nothing. There were many far worse off than him – and he knew it. William Towers had lost his leg in the war. Most people were sympathetic but there could be rank unpleasantness.

He eyes me up and down, he said, 'I suppose you'll have to be living on other people's generosity for the rest of your life?' I said, 'Well it won't be your bloody generosity I want, goodbye!' And I walked away. I thought, 'Well I'll show that fellow if nobody else – I don't want their generosity!' Do you know it spurred me on!
William Towers

Thousands suffered the phantom pains of missing limbs, the crippling disabilities, the callous jeers from children in the street, the irreparable rending wounds that reduced life to painful torture, wounds that cannot be looked at without a shudder of horror-filled empathy. They inhabited a world of pain and suffering beyond comprehension: a world of tetraplegics, paraplegics, multiple amputations, wrecked lungs, mutilations, emasculation and blindness.

Perhaps in truth there could be no happy-ever-after for those returning from the Great War: no land fit for heroes. Not for the British people at any rate. The world economy had been severely over-strained and Great Britain found itself chained to an enormous national debt. A worldwide depression left economies teetering on the brink of utter collapse. Once again it was ordinary individuals that suffered most in wave after wave of wage cuts, temporary lay-offs and redundancies.

Politics took a messianic turn with ‘strong’ leaders promising an end to all problems. Bubbling away in the background was the prospect of renewed conflict. The Great War was never really a war to end war – that was just a catchy slogan.

We were told that this was 'the war to end war' and some of us at least believed it. It may sound extraordinarily naïve, but I think one had to believe it. All the mud, blood and bestiality only made sense on the assumption that it was the last time civilised man would ever have to suffer it. I could not believe that anyone who had been through it could ever allow it to happen again. I thought that the ordinary man on both sides would rise up as one and kick any politician in the teeth who even mentioned the possibility of war
Lieutenant John Nettleton, Rifle Brigade

But in reality it was just another war. Bigger than any that had preceded it, perhaps: but in essence no different. Just 20 years later the Great War became the First World War with the onset of the Second World War.

Peter Hart is the oral historian at the Imperial War Museum’s Sound Archive. He is author of 1918: A Very British Victory (Phoenix, September 2009).

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This article was first published in the November 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine