Weekend: Trauma That Spread Far beyond the Battlefield; Life on the Home Front Was Punctuated by Love, Bereavement, Traumatised Soldiers and the Risk of Starvation, Says Richard McComb

The Birmingham Post (England), May 31, 2003 | Go to article overview

Weekend: Trauma That Spread Far beyond the Battlefield; Life on the Home Front Was Punctuated by Love, Bereavement, Traumatised Soldiers and the Risk of Starvation, Says Richard McComb


Byline: Richard McComb

Like many teenage girls, Florence Billington fell in love with a soldier. She dreamed of marrying Ted Felton, a private in the King's Liverpool Regiment.

Florence, from Coventry and did not think the German army would disrupt their courtship. The sweethearts planned to get engaged when most people thought the war would be over - Christmas 1914.

Florence, then aged 16, found the pain of separation too much to bare when Ted joined a troop ship for France.

'On the morning they were sailing, I went all haywire and hysterical. I had to do something. I knew I couldn't go down to Dover, nobody did, because they'd been rushed, so I went to see a girlfriend and we danced and danced and tried to clear the depression,' she recalled.

'There was a street organ in the road and it was playing the latest songs and one of them was Baby Doll and it began: 'Listen my love to my tale of woe, Listen, my honey love I just love you so. . .' It was only later Florence learned of her boyfriend's destination. 'I discovered he was fighting at Ypres and you could hear them, you could hear the guns firing, and if you were out in the dark you could see the flashes over in France, of the actual war going on - and he was there.'

She was working as a housemaid in Buxton, Derbyshire, when she learned Ted had been killed.

Florence, who died aged 99, carried these memories with her for life and they are recounted in All Quiet on the Home Front.

Co-author Richard van Emden was inspired to explore the stories of the home front after speaking to the girlfriends and wives of soldiers who served in the First World War.

'I was well aware that I would meet wives and ignored the subject. Then I realised there was an incredible story of the hardship of the home front,' he said. Growing up during the war meant coming to terms with food shortages and social deprivation. Young women found themselves working in military hospitals, treating maimed and traumatised soldiers. Wives, mothers and men left at home were dislocated from the experiences of soldiers who had fought on the Western Front. In contrast, demobbed troops could not fully comprehend the anguish of receiving a buff coloured envelope with a letter bearing the words: 'It is my painful duty. . .'

More than 340,000 children lost either one or both parents during the war. Personal belongings were sent home from the front, including photographs and rings. Anything, however bizarre, was cherished if it had an attachment to a love one. It was not unknown for blood-stained handkerchiefs to be sent back home and kept as treasured mementos.

Some soldiers with a serious injury might be shipped home to a military hospital in Britain.

Private Ted Francis, of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, who was hit by shrapnel, recalled: 'Everybody was looking for a Blighty wound. I was fortunate with my wound because they thought it was more serious than it was. 'I was hit in the ankle, and the fellow in the bed next to mine in the base hospital said, 'You're for England in the morning,' and that was the most beautiful sentence I ever heard throughout the entire war.'

Nurses with no experience of dealing with trauma cases found themselves confronted with soldiers suffering appalling injuries. Vicar's daughter Doris Neve, just 17, wanted to teach at Cheltenham Ladies' College but took up work at the town's Racecourse Hospital. …

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