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An assembly for Remembrance Sunday and Disability History Month

It’s that time of year again when many History teachers are delivering the yearly Remembrance assembly. This year, Disability History Month runs from 16th November, and I wonder if there is a really important opportunity here to tie together the two events?

As part of my research for A new focus on…British Social History, I was fascinated by the stories of soldiers who returned from World War I with lifechanging injuries, both mental and physical. It often feels difficult to slot examples of people with disability into our already packed curriculums and yet I think we often forget about them in our teaching as we glide smoothly from the Treaty of Versailles to the Roaring 20s. Too often we talk about the number of dead but forget to mention that many ex-servicemen faced personal wars resulting from the injuries they had sustained, which would continue for the rest of their lives. I also wanted to remind students of the history of poppy wearing, the important work of the poppy factories in giving injured ex-serviceman work and how this role continues today.

I thought that many of you might be planning your Remembrance assemblies this week, so I offer you my notes from the school assembly I held last week, which have been adapted from our British Social History textbook. Some pages from the enquiry ‘How was disability experienced in Britain, 1919–30?’ are available here to support this blog post.

On 11th November 1918, fighting stopped on the Western Front in Belgium and France. British and Empire troops had been part of a huge war for over four long years. Two weeks later, the British Prime Minister said: “What is our task? To make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in… There are millions of men who will come back. Let us make this land fit for such men to live in.”

Clearly there were two big questions that Britain was facing: How do we remember the millions who have died and how do we support those who have survived?

The first question: how do we remember the dead, was answered by creating war memorials across the country. The most famous of these is called the Cenotaph in London and was unveiled on the 11th November 1920.

If you zoom in on this IWM photo of the unveiling of the memorial, you will notice that the flowers in the wreaths are not poppies. Clearly the poppy was not yet the flower of remembrance that we think of today. We will return to that poppy story later…

The second question facing Britain was how could the country support the soldiers who had survived the war?

Almost two million of the ‘heroes’ coming back to Britain had been permanently disabled as a result of the war. Not all of them were men; nurses and female volunteers were also injured. People suffered loss of limbs, facial injuries, blindness and long-term illnesses, such as breathing problems. About a quarter of disabilities caused by war resulted from mental trauma. This was called ‘war neurosis’ at the time. Men with mental trauma received treatment. Women with mental trauma were usually sent home with no medical care and had to rely on their families.

You can find films from the time showing ex-soldiers with ‘shell shock’, which today we would call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This caused different symptoms in different patients but symptoms could be the inability to walk, uncontrollable shaking, stuttering and horrific nightmares. And the effects lasted well beyond the war. At least 250,000 men suffered from this condition.

Many men were left with life changing disabilities such as blindness, loss of legs and arms. The photo on p.14 of our textbook extract shows Indian soldiers, who had been injured on the Western Front, playing a game of quoits as they recovered in a military hospital in Brighton. If you look closely, you can see that many of the men have crutches or arms in slings. The more seriously injured soldiers would still be inside the hospital.

Nearly 2 million of the men returning to Britain were permanently disabled and for them the war would continue indefinitely. Due to the powerful weapons that were used in the fighting, such as shells filled with shrapnel (sharp pieces of hot metal), soldiers suffered terrible facial injuries which meant they feared being seen in public.

This IWM photo shows a mask being created for an ex-soldier with severe facial injuries. It allows him to move around in public without shocking people. Do think about this carefully. Think about how hard it would be to come to terms with losing part of your face. Think about how hard it would be to feel that you were no longer acceptable to society and that you had to hide your injuries.

Many injured men could not return to the jobs that they had done before the war. They could not support their families as they were expected to do. Although some people were unsympathetic, many gave money to charities to support disabled ex-servicemen. The public also thought that the government had a duty to provide help. The government promised the disabled ex-servicemen re-training and jobs close to their homes. They also said that all employers would be asked to provide them with good jobs. For disabled ex-servicemen who were unable to do hard physical work, the government was meant to provide alternative workplaces. The poster on p.15 of our textbook extract shows the pressure the government tried to put on employers to give jobs to disabled ex-soldiers.

Straight after the war there were many different charitable associations set up to support ex- soldiers, such as the Star and Garter Home, featured on p.14 of our textbook extract. These associations were brought together under a new organisation called the British Legion by 1921. The aims of the British Legion were to support disabled ex-serviceman and their families. General Haig, who you may have learned about if you have studied the Battle of the Somme, became the patron of the British Legion. In 1921, the British Legion held the first ever fundraising activity for disabled ex-soldiers by selling paper poppies. It was a huge success, making over 3 million pounds in today’s money. It was so successful that the Legion funded a factory in London to make the poppies to be worn on Remembrance Sunday. It is now that we see the paper poppy become the official symbol of British Remembrance.

The advert on p.13 of the textbook extract shows that the British Legion not only raised money for disabled ex-soldiers, but they also employed them. This picture shows the workers inside the poppy factory in London. It also provided housing for the workers and their families. A second factory was opened in Edinburgh in 1926.

Since the end of WWI, the British have been involved in 41 other conflicts and the poppies we buy continue to help the ex-servicemen and women and their families who have been involved in these conflicts. I hope that when you buy a poppy this year, you will do it thinking not just of the number of the dead, but of how the poppy represents the millions of men and women who have returned from wars unable to live the life they had previously known.

Ruth Lingard

A new focus on...British Social History, c.1920–2000 for KS3 History explores experiences of disability, sexuality, gender and ethnicity. Find out more about the book here.

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