By Dr Ashley Borrett

A conflict of the magnitude of the First World War was always going to leave indelible scars on the nations, and individuals, that participated directly and indirectly. So it is perhaps no surprise that, alongside the narrative of providing a ‘land fit for heroes’ for former combatants, anxieties existed over how to help or deal with those battle-weary, damaged and embittered soldiers when they returned to everyday life after 1918.

And there were many victims. Three years after the war had ended, 1,187,450 men were receiving pensions for disabilities, both mental and physical, sustained during the conflict.[1] There was also a view that many of those individuals who had fought in the bloody battles and subjected to the dehumanising effects of the conflict had been left brutalised and devoid of the morals and ethics that had once set them apart as honest Englishmen.

Desensitised to violence

These were, the theory goes, men who had faced unimaginable acts of violence during the war years and were now desensitised to this violence. Trained in the use of firearms and with no jobs or little else to occupy their time, they would, it was believed, inevitably turn to crime, both violent and petty, to make ends meet or stimulate bodies and minds.

The introductions to the crime statistics that were produced and published annually discussed these kinds of causal relationships between conflict and criminality. And so did the many judges and magistrates presiding over cases involving former soldiers.[2]

But the notion that the First World War had criminalised former soldiers does not appear to be supported by the evidence. The anticipated crime wave of returning soldiers desperate for material goods, brutalised by warfare, and prepared to use guns smuggled home from the front, turned out to be ‘a damp squib’.[3]

In fact, the whole narrative of the brutalised ex-soldier, his propensity for criminality, and the panicked responses to his behaviour in peace time may need rethinking, particularly when viewed through the prism of localised responses.

A local perspective

For instance, in the city of Hull, where like many other places, thousands of residents had participated in the war, the public, the local media, and even magistrates and the police were often sympathetic to the plight of the ex-soldier, who had returned home battered and bruised by such a brutal conflict.

Opinion pieces and editorials in the newspapers, and the solicitors representing ex-servicemen in court, would blame many factors for criminal behaviour, such as a deterioration of physical and mental wellbeing as a consequence of the war.

For example, in May 1922, when a Hull man was charged with attempting to steal six shillings from the licensee of his local pub, it was claimed during the court case that he had not always been ‘responsible for his actions’ due to a head wound, shell shock and frost-bitten feet suffered during the war.

A ‘virulent type of trench fever’ was stated as the reason why another former soldier was in court for the alleged assault on a 23-year-old woman in local woods. The defendant had tied the woman’s hands behind her back, ordered her to undress and then blackened her face with polish during the attack.

Fighting for King and Country

At times, the local press would even refute, in the strongest possible terms, the whole idea that ex-soldiers, who had fought bravely for King and Country, now had a new-found propensity for criminality, stating categorically that it would not acknowledge that ‘men who have worn His Majesty’s uniform’ were ‘readily tempted to crime’.

A firm rebuttal appeared in the ‘London Letter’ column published in an edition of the Hull Daily Mail in January 1920, which discussed the current epidemic of robberies with violence. The correspondent claimed to have found no evidence at all to support the theory that it was the work of ex-servicemen, who it was said had acquired the knack of committing such crimes during the fighting in France.

‘Sheer lawlessness’

In the introduction to the Report of the Commissioners of Prisons for 1920, it was claimed that inquiries into the 6,461 former soldiers sent to prison in that year had found that the men had committed crime from ‘sheer lawlessness’, which was ‘generated by the conditions of active service in different parts of the world, where the normal constraints of conduct had been banished by the stress of war’.[4]

Interestingly, the prison commissioners’ reports also went on to claim that crimes committed by ex-soldiers had nothing to do with the socio-economic circumstances that many former servicemen found themselves in after the war.[5]

But as well as sometimes acting as apologists or even deniers of veteran criminality, editors and writers in the Hull Daily Mail challenged this view in a series of articles relating to the social and economic characteristics behind the crimes committed by former soldiers.

Crimes of desperation

Rather than blaming directly any acts of criminality on medical conditions associated with the conflict, the newspapers claimed that both the mental and physical injuries that ex-servicemen were suffering from had made it extremely difficult for them to find employment following demobilisation.

The economic slump that gripped the nation in the first few years after the war compounded these problems. As a result, many former soldiers faced destitution and found themselves before the courts on charges of stealing, vagrancy and other offences related to their economic circumstances.

A former resident of Hull stood in the dock at Kirkham in 1924, charged with obtaining by false pretences 18 dozen eggs and a set of scales, and pleaded for another chance after having got into debt through illness and lack of work and being ‘tempted to commit the offence in order to obtain money for food’.

A letter writer to the Hull Daily Mail claimed that, ‘a great number of men never knew what unemployment really was, and never suffered from such a thing, until they got demobilised, and they found themselves stranded’.

‘No food in the house’

Ex-servicemen appear to have struggled for many years after the war ended. In 1936, a former soldier who served in both the wars in South Africa and in Europe appeared at Hull Magistrates’ Court accused of stealing two ornamental cannons. The man justified his actions by claiming it was ‘temptation’ as he had ‘no food in the house’.

As well as featuring numerous articles on the plight of former servicemen, the local newspapers ran campaigns to help ex-soldiers find work. Shortly after the end of the war, the papers printed articles featuring lists of ex-servicemen who were looking for employment, along with details of their backgrounds and experiences.

In some cases, long-term unemployment through illness associated with serving in the war could result in more extreme forms of criminal behaviour, as was the case with a 25-year-old Hull man, who in 1927 was charged with attempting to murder his children by turning the gas on in the room in which they were sleeping. In mitigation, the defendant, who had served in the Durham Light Infantry in 1917, blamed his actions on ‘depression through being out of work, and lack of good food’.

For the Hull Police surgeon who examined the Hull man, this was also a case where the ‘moral state’ of a former solider had been lowered to the point where criminality was a natural course of action. In this instance, it appears the effects of war had lay dormant for almost a decade, awoken by the desperate social and economic circumstances of the defendant.

A sympathetic approach

Overall, the local newspapers refrained from vilifying former First World War soldiers or their illegal actions once out of the army, and there appears to have been a genuine concern about the plight of the former soldier in peace time. Articles, editorials and commentaries covering the subject of soldier-related criminality were generally free from the kind of populist sensationalism that could sometimes be found in the pages of the national press during this period.

Importantly, this concern rather than vilification, and the apparent absence of anxiety and panic over the alleged propensity of returning soldiers to commit crime, may have been replicated in other towns and cities across the country. Further local studies would help to present a much more complete and accurate picture of reactions to this type of criminality in the aftermath of the First World War.

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Key primary sources used for this article include the Hull Daily Mail, which is available to view at The British Newspaper Archive,  and archival material held at Hull History Centre and East Riding of Yorkshire Archives. To find out more, download the Hull and East Riding Source Guide.

Notes

[1] C. Wrigley, ‘The impact of the First World War’, in C. Wrigley (ed.), A companion to early twentieth-century Britain (Chichester: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), 502–516:512.

[2] C. Emsley, Soldier, sailor, beggarman, thief: crime and the British armed services since 1914 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 167 & 163.

[3] B. Godfrey, Crime in England 1880–1945: the rough and the criminal, the policed and the incarcerated (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013), 130.

[4] Prison Commission, Home Office, Report of the commissioners of prisons and the directors of convict prisons 1920. Cm 972 (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office).

[5] Ibid.

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