A few weeks ago I went to a local history event to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. The idea of the event was to commemorate and explore the different aspects or the conflict and look at how it has shaped the society we live in today.
There were living displays, men and women in period dress demonstrating everything from joining up for the Kings Shilling, to examples of battle kit that was issued. I have to say I was more than a little shocked at how meagre the kit was, it seemed to consist of little more than a scratchy woollen uniform, ration tin, shoe cleaning kit, a gun and a tin hat. It was both scary and poignant to think of thousands of young men, some little more than children, despatched to a hostile frontline.
The railway station where I live has remained remarkably unchanged over the last century, in fact when I am waiting on one of the three platforms to go off on my travels it has many times made the past seem somehow closer when I am on the platform. If you removed the electric digital announcement screens, it would be like going back in time. The ghostly figures boarding trains in their thousands become tangible beings; the ones who boarded a train compelled by social expectation to be men and fight never to come back. The entrance to Platform One now has a war memorial in remembrance of those who worked on the railway and were lost in the conflict.
The Great War, as it came to be known, saw change and development on several levels, social, technological and medical developments reshaped our society. The years leading up to war had seen growing support of the women’s suffrage movement that campaigned to give women the vote and afford them the same rights and opportunities that were available to men. However, war saw the suspension of political protest and direct action. Women took on a new place in society, they worked in jobs that were previously considered to be the preserve of men, they stepped into the breach taking on dangerous jobs working in munitions, nursing and driving ambulances on the frontline, proving equal in worth and ability to men. For women, war became a means to demonstrate the need for equality and recognition, one of the few positives, yet unintended consequences of war.
The event I visited had several stalls each chronicling the different aspects of life in war time. It was at one of these that I came across a period actor talking about developments in medicine that were a consequence of war. He talked about Walter Yeo, a sailor who sustained massive facial injuries in the Battle of Jutland. Yeo underwent pioneering treatment under the care of the groundbreaking surgeon, Sir Harold Gillies, who developed skin grafting as a way of treating individuals with serious skin wounds or burns. Walter’s face was painstakingly rebuilt over many years. Whilst Yeo was still described as having a severe disfigurement, he had significant function returned to him.
Professor Roger Cooter wrote about the impact of war on medical advancements. He discussed how the First World War created an opportunity for medical development due to there being a substantial number of combatants presenting with very similar injuries.
There were 2 million disabled veterans who returned home at the end of World War One, who suffered a variety of injuries resulting in long-term disability, both physical and mental. This war made disability more visible and a pressing social issue. It resulted in the opening of the original poppy factory in Richmond in 1922 closely followed by Lady Haig’s poppy factory in Edinburgh in 1926. The idea behind both sites was to employ men who had suffered life-changing injuries in the conflict to provide them with a livelihood. This was the first time in history that society began to accept disability as part of social life and its responsibility. Disability through wounds became seen as almost an honourable state with the Silver War Badge being issued to soldiers who had been discharged due to their injuries for their service.
I am grateful for these individuals who, unwittingly, blazed a trail for me. They helped to create a world which was of a mind to accept me with all of my physical limitations. They fertilised the idea of an inclusive society.
I will remember them.