Sunday, January 27, 2019

Football with the lads

Soldiers' football match Salonika Dec 1915 ©IWM Q31576
Perhaps the best-known football story of the First World War is that of the men of the London Irish Rifles who dribbled the ball across No Man’s Land under heavy machine gun and artillery fire as they attacked the German lines at Loos in 1915.*

What is less well-known is the plight of soldiers who returned from the war, unable to ever again join in a game of football. An estimated 8 million veterans returned home permanently disabled, 750,000 men in Britain and 1.5 million in Germany.  As historian Deborah Cohen explains,
More than any other group, disabled veterans symbolized the First World War’s burdens. Long after the Armistice, the sight of empty sleeves tucked into pockets recalled “sad memories of the war and its longdrawn suffering.” For the disabled themselves, as one veteran explained, the Great War “could never be over.”**
In January of 1920, Punch published a poem by E.W. Pigott that tells of the costs born and the courage displayed by disabled veterans.


Now has the soljer handed in his pack,
      And “Peace on earth, goodwill to all” been sung;
I’ve got a pension and my ole job back—
      Me, with my right leg gawn and half a lung;
But, Lord! I’d give my bit o’ buckshee° pay
      And my gratuity in honest Brads°
To go down to the field nex’ Saturday
      And have a game o’ football with the lads.

It’s Saturdays as does it. In the week
      It’s not too bad; there’s cinemas and things;
But I gets up against it, so to speak,
      When half-day-off comes round again and brings
The smell o’ mud an’ grass an’ sweating men
      Back to my mind—there’s no denying it;
There ain’t much comfort tellin’ myself then,
      “Thank Gawd, I went toot sweet° an’ did my bit!”

Oh, yes, I knows I’m lucky, more or less;
      There’s some pore blokes back there who played the game
Until they heard the whistle go, I guess,
      For Time an’ Time eternal. All the same
It makes me proper down at heart and sick
WW1 Veterans, Princess Louise Hospital
      To see the lads go laughing off to play;
I’d sell my bloomin’ soul to have a kick—
      But what’s the good of talkin,’ anyway?
            —E.W. Pigott***
Over 40,000 British veterans of the First World War suffered the amputation of one or more limbs, while the number of war amputees in Germany totaled over 67,000.  In the aftermath of the Great War,  the economic plight of disabled veterans was particularly acute as widespread social unrest spread and unemployment rose.

In Britain, pensions for the disabled were limited to no more than 40 shillings per week, a sum far below what was needed to support a man, much less a family (unskilled builders earned 84 shillings/week, coal miners between 99 – 135 shillings/week††). Disability review boards assessed the extent to which men were disabled and awarded the full 40 shillings only to those who were determined to experience 100% disability, defined as follows:
Loss of two or more limbs, loss of an arm and an eye, loss of a leg and an eye, loss of both hands or all fingers and thumbs, loss of both feet, loss of a hand or a foot, total loss of sight, total paralysis, lunacy, wounds or disease resulting in a man being permanently bedridden, wounds to internal organs or head involving total permanent disability, very severe facial disfigurement.
Those with legs amputated at the hip or with a stump of “not more than five inches” were assessed as 80% disabled and received 32 shillings/week, while a veteran with a leg amputated “more than 4 inches below the knee” was determined to be only 50% disabled and entitled to receive a mere 20 shillings per week.†††

As former Sergeant Thomas Kelly of Dumbartsonshire wrote to his government,
There was not so much red-tape to go through in August, 1914, when the country was crying for men and I left a good job to join the soldiers, but now when I am a maimed and not fit for manual labour, this country has no further use for me. Yet it was to be a country fit for heroes to live in.††††
*Read more about the footballers at Loos on the website of the London Irish Rifles Association.
** Deborah Cohen, The War Come Home, Univ. of California Press, 2001,  pp. 4, 2.
° buckshee = something extra obtained for free (first known use 1919); Brads = “Between 1914 and 1928 £1 notes were issued that came to be called brads after Sir John Bradbury, Secretary to the Treasury” (David Crystal, Words in Time and Place); toot sweet = French phrase tout suite (immediately, with haste).
***While it is nearly impossible to determine the author’s identity with certainty, the Imperial War Museum's Lives of the First World War lists a Lieutenant Edward William Pigott, who served with the London and East Lancashire Regiments.
 For Britain, Joanna Bourke’s Dismembering the Male, Univ. of Chicago, 1996, p. 33; for Germany, Robert Weldon Whalen’s Bitter Wounds, Cornell UP, 1984, p. 40. 
†† “War and Impairment: The Social Consequences of Disablement,” UNITE and UK Disability History Month, Nov/Dec 2014,, Accessed 20 Jan. 2019.
††† Thanks to Dr. Jessica Meyer who shared these statistics from Joanna Bourne’s Dismembering the Male in a presentation at Voices from the Home Fronts, The National Archives at Kew, 20 Oct. 2018.
†††† Thanks to researcher Louise Bell who shared this letter from The National Archives (LAB 2/1195/TDS2884/1919) in a presentation at Voices from the Home Fronts, The National Archives at Kew, 19 Oct. 2018.