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Factors impacting on an ability to cope following horrendous war experiences are varied and incredibly complex. But to explore just one in isolation: What effect might peacetime social and economic conditions, and the perceived attitude or actions of the elected government, have on someone’s ability to live day-to-day with shell-shock, soldier’s heart, neurasthenia combat fatigue, war neurosis, conditions now recognized as PTSD? How did the homecoming experience of returning service personnel in 1945, for instance, differ from that of the previous generation?
In Britain, many in the middle and upper-classes resumed a peaceful, affluent and rewarding lifestyle after 1918. There was a lot of fun to be had in the new social freedoms, popular culture and nightlife of the 1920s, although as we’ve learned from Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and many others, leaving their battlefield experiences behind would prove impossible, no matter how comfortable their surroundings or how well placed they were on invitation lists for white-tie dances during the London Season.
But what would confront veterans from poor and working-class backgrounds as they rejoined civilian society? Following a brief economic boom, conditions quickly deteriorated. Economic output declined by as much as one quarter. Urban working-class housing remained in perpetual crisis, as Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s “Homes Fit for Heroes” promise soon collapsed in the face of skills, materials and funding shortfalls.
Unemployment Spikes Following Economic Boom
Despite the eligible workforce having been vastly depleted by the wartime death and injury toll, unemployment spiked to 17 percent by 1921, subsequently moderated, but then surged to 22 percent, or well over 3 million people out of work when the Great Depression took hold at the end of the decade.
The first of a series of hunger marches were organised, and in 1926 the nation ground to a halt as transport and other unions stopped work in support of coal miners, who were facing increased hours and progressive pay cuts.
Inequality remained particularly pronounced outside of London and the Home Counties, in the industrial and mining communities to the North of England and in the Welsh Valleys. To take but one example, Jarrow, on the River Tyne, endured an unemployment rate of up to 85 percent following the collapse of its principal employer, Palmer’s Shipyard, in 1934.
Jarrow Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson said, “The plain fact is that if people have to live and bear and bring up their children in bad houses on too little food, their resistance to disease is lowered and they die before they should.”
Unemployment on this scale did not discriminate between skilled and unskilled workers. Thousands of Great War veterans, now approaching middle-age, found themselves and their families in poverty, in poor health, some starving, and with little hope.
King Edward VIII, already at odds with the Baldwin Government over his desire to marry the divorced American, Wallis Simpson, was deeply affected by his visit to an impoverished South Wales mining community in late 1936, and publicly stated; “something should be done to find these people work.”
Members of the government resented his intervention, and were unmoved.
George Fairbrother is the author the Armstrong and Burton novels. His interests include cultural and working-class history, post-war British cinema, as well as classic rock and roll and early Hollywood. You can follow him on his website and on Facebook.
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