To what extent did their experience of trench warfare impact on the lives of the soldiers who fought in World War One?
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The effects of trench warfare were horrific for those who endured it; the harsh cold, constant shelling, diseases and new weapons of war were enough to drive a man to the brink of insanity. But the effects did not cease once the war came to it’s conclusion in July 1919. Hundreds of thousands of men were disabled due to fighting in the front lines and many others suffered from mental illnesses, termed 'Shellshock' because it was originally thought to have been caused by the crashing of shells around the soldiers in the field.
The treatments for Shellshock victims were a far cry from modern medical practices: “The ‘deaf’ were caught by lip reading; the ‘blind’ by having their heads plunged into water; the ‘severe headaches’ by lumbar punctures and the ‘blackouts’ by sodium Amytal injections.” (Winter, Denis: “Death’s Men”) Electric-shock therapy was also a widely used treatment for such casualties of the war.
It was hard for many of the demobilized soldiers to integrate seamlessly back into society as the effects of the war lingered in their minds long after the war. The period immediately after the war was a time “where the men who returned from the horrors of the trenches wanted to forget, and where those who had stayed behind, and had lost husbands and brothers, and sons and fathers were equally determined never to forget.” (Roden, Mike. "Aftermath.”) Nightmares and the memories of the war plagued those who had survived it, and many turned to a life of silence and isolation, avoiding strangers and gradually recovering from their terrible experiences.
The soldiers returning home also had trouble finding work; all the ex-soldiers who were unemployed received 24 shillings a week for the first year following the war with additional amounts for those with children. Those who were disabled by the war had an additional disability pension to provide for them, these included the thousands of men blinded by gas and those who had lost limbs and other appendages. However full-time employment was still desired by the majority of the veterans and there was much resentment directed at the women who occupied the positions in the workforce that were occupied by men before they went to war. There were also many who at first did not care much for seeking full-time employment, they said “That can wait. I’ve done my bit. The country can keep me for a while. I helped to save it.” But eventually even they found that a quiet day at home did not appeal to them.
It had become second nature for the soldiers to live their life in the present; the tension that stopped so suddenly threw many of them off-balance and it was a long time before they could resume normal civilian lives. During this difficult period of adjustment, the ex-soldier was also likely to face hostility from civilians. The soldiers with their uniforms and their wounds were the most visible sign of a war that the population wanted to forget, a war that had become hateful to many people, including the soldiers themselves. The general cost of living had risen by 75% immediately after the war while relative wage levels had fluctuated.
As veteran Professor Woodward noted, “the soldiers counted for less than any generation for 300 years. Like Xenophon after his heroic 1000-mile march through Asia, the English soldier was likewise banished.”
The impact of trench warfare would linger in their minds for the rest of their lives, their nightmares of the war would leave them “lying awake in a cold sweat in the dead of night” for the majority of their lives. It was a hard time, and harder still for the soldier returning home after the war. It was hard for many to cope with the horrors they had experienced, added to the difficulty of finding employment in a time when the cost of living was higher than it had ever been before, this was not the “land fit for heroes” that they had been promised.