Around the world, ceremonies, public art installations, concerts, lectures, and educational events are commemorating the fallen of the First World War, to make beauty, peace, and sense out of a century of global grief. These ceremonies provide a critical sense of closure to a world still reeling from the political, economic, and personal ramifications of the war.
But while the death toll of the First World War was unprecedented, so too was the number of veterans who survived the war and returned home. As a result, all combatant nations were forced to grapple with issues of veterans’ pensions, rehabilitation, and position in postwar society. In Great Britain, as well as other western nations, returning combat veterans to a position of economic stability and social respectability would rebuild a society that had suffered through more than four years of global warfare. However, the status of “veteran” was assigned almost exclusively to men. Although women’s service was respected and honored in public ceremonies, most charitable organizations in Britain quickly focused on and championed the cause of male veterans.1
Reflecting these social assumptions, the Ministry of Pensions devised compensation schemes based on the service and injuries of (male) combat veterans. Female nurses were not permitted to apply for disability pensions until 1920; even when they were, the forms were not adjusted to account for their title, rank, or service history. Instead, officials would cross out and write over the language on the forms to accommodate women’s requests. Because men controlled the narrative of service and suffering, women’s symptoms tended to be blamed on their “natural” emotionality and tendency toward “hysteria.”
Emphasizing women’s emotions over their lived experiences of war trauma proved that women had remained unchanged by the war. Such assumptions also helped male combatants maintain an exclusive narrative of service that afforded social status, visibility, and power in the postwar world. These narratives became part of the cultural memory of war, making it increasingly difficult for women to make claims about their own war trauma and to have those claims heard and understood.
The postwar experiences of Nurse Mary West drive this point home with painful clarity.2 Like many other veterans, male and female alike, she struggled with the memories and physical effects of her service, and those struggles put a significant strain on her marriage. What makes Nurse West’s case unique, however, are the ways in which her domestic struggles played out in the pages of her pension records, and the ways in which the gendered language of service, veterans’ rights, and suffering influenced how ministry officials, as well as her husband, described her and her symptoms.
In the spring of 1918, Nurse Mary West served as a volunteer nurse in Salonika on the British Macedonian Front. During her off-duty time, she accepted a ride with a group of nurses who were enjoying an outing. While en route, a delivery van sideswiped the car and forced them off the road. West was thrown from the car and suffered a skull fracture. While recovering, she contracted malaria, a condition that flared up frequently after her military service. Following her discharge in 1919, Nurse West won a pension commensurate to 30% of her wartime pay for life as a result of her physical injuries and resultant long-term damage to her health. As she was not well enough to continue nursing, she found work as a clerk at the Ministry of Pensions. She also married a veteran of the East Africa Campaign.
In 1926, West applied to the Ministry for an increase in her disability award, as psychological symptoms were making day-to-day life difficult. She had suffered a miscarriage that required an operation, an ordeal which undoubtedly took a toll on her mental and physical health. But in her application, she also noted that she had been suffering for some time from debilitating headaches, insomnia, and nightmares. According to her physician’s notes, she felt “asocial when these attacks occur[ed] and [stated] ‘everything seems wrong.’” She refused to be checked into a hospital of observation, however, unless she could bring her small child with her — a demand the Ministry of Pensions was unwilling to fund. A medical board convened by the Ministry of Pensions described her as “mentally—anxious and apprehensive. Very emotional—depressed,” ruling that she was suffering from “Neurasthenia—of emotional type, moderate severe.”
The diagnosis was not atypical. “Neurasthenia” was a poorly-defined disorder that described a general exhaustion of the nervous system, usually from overwork and stress. However, the medical board physician attributed her emotional stress not to her physical health, but to “domestic troubles … she does not get on well with husband.”3 Ministry officials appeared to grow even more dismissive of West after her husband paid a secret call on the Ministry. According to a note made in her pension file, Mr. West described his wife as “vy [sic] peculiar in her manner … Husband contests that she is mental and he will not be able to continue living with her or to be responsible for her.”
In response to this interview, the Ministry representative determined that West “certainly appear[ed] to be unreasonable in her general attitude towards her husband,” and questioned the very basis of her pension. He wrote: “In view, however, of the report … that the lady has domestic troubles, does not get on with her husband and is described as very hypochondriacal … do you consider that she should be regarded as being actually disabled to the extent of 30% as the result of her service during the war?” In the end, the Ministry decided West could keep her 30% pension, mostly because her injury and illness were well documented.
The following year, however, another medical board noted that her “‘Malaria’ attacks probably hysterical.” This interaction provides some insight into how social and cultural expectations of gender performance influenced the interpretation of women’s suffering and behavior. As West worked at the Ministry of Pensions, the men discussing her case presumably knew her personally. Nevertheless, her husband’s testimony about her attitude and behavior held more sway in their decisions.
Several years later, West’s husband wrote a letter to the Ministry of Pensions regarding his wife. Things were clearly no better in their family — Mary herself still suffered emotionally, and their marriage caused both husband and wife a great deal of stress. According to Mr. West, his wife’s “disability [took] the form of an abnormal attitude of mind and it [made] it impossible for me to earn a living whilst I live[d] with her.” He continued:
At least one scholar has analyzed this correspondence to illustrate how the inability to overcome one’s own war experience, or to empathize with the struggles of one’s spouse, could create a void between partners in a marriage.4 However, this letter also shows how uncomfortably women’s war-related health issues fit with the gendered assumptions of postwar society. It must have been difficult for Mr. West to find himself in the role of both a veteran and a caretaker to his traumatized, ill wife, especially in a world that emphasized that it was his service and his rehabilitation that were of paramount importance.
Mary West lived until 1937. Until her death, she, her husband, and the Ministry of Pensions remained engaged in a battle over the real nature of her symptoms and the legitimacy of her claims for compensation. Her voice almost never comes through in her file. Instead, her husband and military officials interpreted her statements and behavior, making West sound irrational and like a selfish malingerer. Her physical injuries and their repercussions played almost no part in their analysis, nor did her psychological trauma. Instead, ministers emphasized her inability to fulfill her postwar role as a wife to her veteran husband.
Nurse West’s pension files force us to consider whose opinion, and whose suffering, was considered valid in the postwar world. Additionally, her struggles highlight how difficult it could be for women to claim compensation for the trauma and pain that resulted from their war service. Forced to cope with a system that was never intended to assist her, and with a husband who continually discounted her suffering in favor of his own, Nurse West’s story remains a heart-wrenching and insightful window into the gendered assumptions within British society after the First World War and the real toll taken on women veterans in need of care.
- Alison S. Fell’s recent book Women as Veterans in Britain and France after the First World War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018) deals expertly with the nuances of this situation in both Britain and France. Return to text.
- The name of his nurse has been changed to protect her privacy. Her pension file is held at the National Archives in Kew. All quotes in this post are taken from her pension file unless otherwise noted. Return to text.
- Ibid. Return to text.
- Denise J. Poynter, “‘The Report on her Transfer was Shell Shock’: A Study of the Psychological Disorders of Nurses and Female Voluntary Aid Detachments who served alongside the British and Allied Expeditionary Forces during the First World War, 1914-1918,” Unpublished Dissertation, University of Northampton, 2008. Return to text.