Standing alongside many thousands of people in Whitehall on Sunday morning, proudly wearing my Grandfather’s First World War medals on the right hand side of my overcoat , I could not help but be moved by the poignancy of the occasion.
The centenary of the commencement of the First World War clearly brought a special feel to the event.
That commemoration is ,as so many brilliantly produced documentaries have illustrated, an occasion to reflect on how the tragedy of war came to engulf Europe and Britain and to ponder if there are lessons to be learnt from the events of 1914 for Britain today.
The origins and consequences of the First World War have been analysed, written about and filmed more thoroughly than almost any other historical event in our long island history. Recently there have been many fine works on the social, geo-political and political consequences of what has surely proved to be a significant event long past the dates of the start and end of the horrendous military conflict.
Since the numbers involved are so vast; the huge numbers of men and women that were mobilised, the dead, the wounded in body and mind, the displaced, the whole vastness of the horror of war on individuals becomes lost.
During Sunday’s Cenotaph ceremony my thoughts were, in part, of one Harry H Blacklin. He was one of millions of men who officially survived the horrendous trauma of the trenches in the First World War.
Remarkably, the cockney who joined the 7th City of London Regiment in 1914 survived to November 1918 without physical injury and returned home to his wife Nellie and young daughter in his adopted home in St Helier, Jersey. However, Private Blacklin, like many countless thousands of others; suffered deep psychological trauma as a result of his war experiences.
His post war life was fraught with difficulties and personal problems which, he, by all surviving accounts, had difficulty dealing with which accumulated in his taking his own life in 1933.
I know about Harry because he was married to my great Aunt. Suicide back in those days carried a social and religious stigma and the war veteran was airbrushed out of family history; it was only on the death, in 2007,of a family member and lifelong soldier that Harry’s medals, paperwork and story came to be known to me.
On 20 January 1919 Charles Campbell, a resident of Brockville Ontario, was the first of many veterans of the First World War known to have committed suicide that year.
Tragically others were to follow, exactly how many men took their own lives , in despair , during the difficult personal and economic years that followed the Great War is not known since, like Harry, their story or names are mostly unknown, not recognised since not having died of their wounds their names do not appear on war memorials or rolls of Honour.
Whilst there is much written about what at the time was described as ‘shell shock’ most historians, I have come to conclude, ignore the question of soldier suicide as a direct result of the trauma of trench warfare.
As is now accepted, it was clear to the medical authorities during the war that large numbers of combatants could not cope with the strain of warfare; though in order to maintain morale and discipline the issue was played down. Yet by the end of World War One, the army had dealt with 80,000 cases of ‘shell shock’, though that number would in reality have been higher. As early as 1917, it was recognised, but not publicised ,that war neuroses accounted for one-seventh of all personnel discharged for disabilities from the British Army. Once wounds were excluded, emotional disorders were responsible for one-third of all discharges.
Of historical note is the fact that a higher proportion of officers were suffering in this way. According to one survey published in 1917, while the ratio of officers to men at the front was 1:30, among patients in hospitals specialising in war neuroses, the ratio of officers to men was 1:6. What medical officers quickly realised was that everyone had a ‘breaking point’: weak or strong, courageous or cowardly , war frightened everyone witless and not just during the war itself.
However, what has not been recognised is the sad fact that a significant number of veterans of the 1914-1918 conflict tragically committed suicide, often following years of distress to both themselves and their families, in the years after the war, as a direct result of the trauma they experienced. Lest we forget any of them.
Peter Troy can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org