The War's Returns
Disabled Veterans in Britain and Germany, 1914–1939
The debate over whether World War I should be termed "total" is, in its essence, a scholarly dispute. It hinges on distinctions that only those at a safe remove from the terrible violence of the first half of the twentieth century can draw. For the Great War's victims, the question was not comparative. More than nine and a half million soldiers died during World War I; on average, the war claimed the lives of 5,600 men every day that it continued.1 Twenty million men were severely wounded; eight million veterans returned home permanently disabled.2 Casualties of Europe's bloodiest war, disabled soldiers had suffered the worst injuries ever seen. Shrapnel from exploding shells tore a ragged path through flesh and bone, leaving wounds, one British surgeon acknowledged, "from which the most hardened might well turn away in horror."3 Under the threat of constant shell fire and ubiquitous death, some men lost their minds. Others contracted debilitating illnesses that shortened their lives. Years after their demobilization, disabled veterans still bore the sufferings war inflicted. Like bank clerk Erich Reese, they lived with injuries that robbed independence. Both hands amputated, blind in one eye, Reese found himself unable even to hold an umbrella.4 Former infantryman Albert Bayliss, gassed in France, could not sleep for his racking cough. Unemployed for thirteen months, his rent severely in arrears, Bayliss
This chapter provides an overview of an argument developed in my book, The War Come Home:
Disabled Veterans in Britain and Germany, 1914–1939 (Berkeley, Calif., 2001). An earlier version of
this essay was published as "Civil Society in the Aftermath of the Great War," in Frank Trentmann,
ed., The Paradoxes of Civil Society: Great Britain and Germany (London, 1999).
1 Martin Gilbert, The First World War (New York, 1994), 541; Robert Weldon Whalen, Bitter Wounds:
German Victims of the Great War, 1914–1939 (Ithaca, N.Y., 1984), 38.
2 Francis W. Hirst, The Consequences of the War to Britain (London, 1934), 295. International Labour
Office, Employment of Disabled Men: Meeting of Experts for the Study of Methods of Finding Employment
for Disabled Men (Geneva, 1923), 16.
3 Henry Cedar, A Surgeon in Belgium (London, 1915), 22.
4 Herr Erich Reese to the Labor Ministry, June 4, 1921, Bundesarchiv Berlin, RAM 7757.