impact of the First World War extended well beyond 1918. As the British
population tried to come to terms with the end of total warfare, the question
arose as to what sort of world people would come home to. Although the war ushered in many changes, including the extension of
voting rights to some women as well as to working-class men, other facets of
society proved more resistant to change. Wounded veterans faced the
often daunting task of reconstructing their lives and renegotiating their
identities. The future for them was often uncertain. Some civilians and
ex-servicemen began to question the old political order, voting for Ramsay
MacDonald’s Labour Party and laying the foundations for the political divides
of today. Across Europe, veterans were attracted by the more radical solutions
offered by the far right and far left.
Reginald “Reg” Evans
Reg was an apprentice at a brush factory in Hemel Hempstead before the war. In 1913 he joined the Territorial Army, in anticipation of the looming conflict, and in 1914 he was sent to France. During the war he served as a Sergeant in the First Hertfordshire Regiment, was decorated with the Distinguished Conduct Medal, and was recommended for a Victoria Cross.
Reginald Evans' war momentos Brass tin from Princess Mary - closedOriginal Source: University of Leeds Special Collections
Reg’s father died shortly before he was born, and despite the fact that he was raised in an orphanage, as his mother could not afford to keep him, the two maintained a particularly close relationship and corresponded regularly throughout Reg’s war service and post-wound recovery. Reg's war momentos included a brass tin which Princess Mary sent to troops in 1914 as Christmas gifts. They contained tobacco and other treats.
Reginald Evans' war momentos Reginald Evans' war momentos (1914/1918)Original Source: University of Leeds Special Collections
Reginald “Reg” Evans sent the tin and its contents to his mother, to keep as a memento of his war service.
Items relating to Reginald 'Reg' Evans' wounding and hospital stay A letter from the hospital to Mrs EvansOriginal Source: University of Leeds Special Collections
On the 14 February 1916, Reg received a severe bullet wound to the jaw during a reconnaissance mission, for which he received the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Mrs Evans received this letter on 19 February 1916. This was all the information she was given about her son’s welfare.
Items relating to Reginald 'Reg' Evans' wounding and hospital stay Reg's injury notice - sent to his motherOriginal Source: University of Leeds Special Collections
Reg dictated the written letter to a nurse as he was too weak to write himself. This was the first of many hospitals which Reg would call home for the next year.
Items relating to Reginald 'Reg' Evans' wounding and hospital stay A postcard from Cambridge Hospital AldershotOriginal Source: University of Leeds Special Collections
Firstly, Reg was transferred between hospitals in France, before he was sent to the Cambridge Military Hospital, Aldershot, to receive specialised treatment at Sir Harold Gillies’ unit for facial injuries, the largest of its kind in Britain at the time.
Items relating to Reginald 'Reg' Evans' wounding and hospital stay Postcard from Reg to his motherOriginal Source: University of Leeds Special Collections
When Reg finally regained the strength to write to his mother himself, he explained to her: “I cannot eat at all and will not be able to till after the operation. I am afraid you will have to prepare yourself to receive rather an uglier duckling than before”.
Items relating to Reginald 'Reg' Evans' wounding and hospital stay A letter Reg wrote to his mother from Cambridge HospitalOriginal Source: University of Leeds Special Collections
Reg's letters demonstrate the difficulties and anxieties faced by wounded soldiers, particularly those with disfiguring wounds, as they attempted to prepare love ones for the reality of injuries caused by modern mechanised warfare, which were unprecedented in their severity.
Items relating to Reginald 'Reg' Evans' wounding and hospital stay A letter Reg wrote to his mother from Waverly Abbey - page 1Original Source: University of Leeds Special Collections
Reg wrote home frequently detailing his experiences. He discusses frustration at his lengthy recovery and the difficulties in eating caused by his wound, but also romantic encounters, including “kissing girls just getting over bronchitis”. Reg’s letters to his mother, written over the course of his hospitalisation, provide an insight into the reconfiguring of his life and his identity which took place at this time.
Reg struggled with uncertainty over the length of his hospitalisation, the boredom and sense of confinement, and his constantly-changing appearance. He was hospitalised for a year, and underwent multiple severe and painful operations during this time, some of which were unsuccessful. Despite this, his letters were often positive in tone, telling his mother about his friendships with the nurses and other patients, day-trips and activities which were organised by the hospital staff and philanthropists, and dates with local women.
Items relating to Reginald 'Reg' Evans' wounding and hospital stay Railways Facilities postcard sent to Mrs Evans - frontOriginal Source: University of Leeds Special Collections
Humour was a common feature of Reg’s letters, and one which helped him and his family come to terms with his injuries. Humorous stoicism was used to cover negative emotional responses to wounds, demonstrating fortitude and allowing disfigured men to appear “manly”, according to conceptions of masculinity at the time. Reg’s brother, for example, advised him to “keep smiling if your jaw will let you”. Whilst his surgery was considered a medical success, Reg’s facial injury was clearly visible and he had difficulty eating for the rest of his life. After the Armistice he returned home. He married, had children, secured a job running the local newsagents, and was an active part of the local community until his death in the 1940s.
James Gibson, of Newcastle, lost his right eye on the Western Front in October 1916. He was treated at Sidcup and took to wearing an eye-patch to cover the disfigurement caused by his wound.
Some facially-wounded men opted for false eyes or custom-made prosthetic masks to hide their disfigurements. Others, like James, simply wore patches or pieces of material. Whose benefit were these different forms of masking facial difference for? Did they protect the wearer from potential stigma, or did they exist so that society did not have to look upon disfigurements and be reminded of the war and its consequences?
Curator introductions from Alex Shaw and Eilis Boyle Eilis Boyle on James GibsonOriginal Source: University of Leeds Special Collections
Items relating to James Gibson’s post-war training and employment Letter to Mr Gibson from the Ministry of Labour (1923-03)Original Source: University of Leeds Special Collections
Re-training opportunities were offered to wounded ex-servicemen as an initiative run by the Ministry of Labour, and James sought training from this department after he left Sidcup. The options available to ex-servicemen, as James discovered, could however be limited.
Items relating to James Gibson’s post-war training and employment Grant award letter to James Gibson (1924)Original Source: University of Leeds Special Collections
James applied for training in household repairs, joining, French polishing, and upholstery. The Ministry rejected all of these claims, stating that the nature of James’ disability rendered him unfit for training in these fields. They instead suggested hairdressing as an appropriate field. After extensive applications and rejections, James was awarded a grant to start his own business. With this grant he opened an ironmongers shop in Newcastle, which he continued to run into the 1960s.
Items relating to James Gibson’s post-war training and employment Photo of James Gibson Age 60Original Source: University of Leeds Special Collections
The types of work deemed suitable for disabled men did not always fit with their own employment preferences or ideas about “honourable” work. A 1923 play entitled The Unknown Warrior encapsulated this internal conflict, with one disabled veteran explaining “I’m fed up with making silly toys. It’s not work for a man - but we’re not men now”.
The snap election in December 1918 was called the Khaki Election because most British servicemen were still stationed overseas. Many felt excluded from debates and refused to vote as a protest against cynical government tactics. The ballot papers which were sent to service personnel overseas in 1918 look very similar to today’s postal vote forms.
Ballot paper from the 1918 Khaki Election sent to Douglas McIntyre Ballot paper side 2Original Source: University of Leeds Special Collections
In the 1918 Gateshead election, the government-endorsed Unionist candidate Herbert Surtees emerged victorious. However, in the next election of 1922, he was unseated by the Labour candidate, John Brotherton, who on this form is described as being an engine fitter from Leeds.
Ballot paper from the 1918 Khaki Election sent to Douglas McIntyre Ballot paper envelope 2Original Source: University of Leeds Special Collections
This ballot paper was sent to Douglas McIntyre. Douglas was a soldier from Gateshead who was stationed in France during the Khaki Election. He decided not to vote in the 1918 election and never voted again because he did not feel any parties represented his views. Douglas was not alone in feeling resentment and disillusionment towards Britain’s coalition government in the wake of the First World War. Many soldiers burned their ballot papers as a sign of protest.
Ballot paper from the 1918 Khaki Election sent to Douglas McIntyre redirect envelope side 2Original Source: University of Leeds Special Collections
The 1918 coalition government, led by Prime Minister David Lloyd George, supported a continuation of conscription, which was widely unpopular amongst war veterans. Nevertheless, they won a landslide victory. This was despite a low turnout of around 57% of those eligible to vote: the worst general election turnout in fifty years.
Khaki Election poster for Ben Turner, Batley and Morley constituency (1918-12)Original Source: University of Leeds Special Collections
Ben Turner was an unsuccessful Labour Party candidate in West Yorkshire. This poster was sent to soldier Gilbert Mortimer by his father. Initially opposed to Labour, Gilbert changed his mind because he decided Labour would better look after returning veterans.
Like most British servicemen, Gilbert was still overseas during the Khaki Election of December 1918. Soldiers such as Gilbert were not politically apathetic. Often they felt very strongly about political issues, particularly what they saw as a cynical move by the government to hold the election so soon after the Armistice and before the veterans returned home. Gilbert also attended election meetings in the army camps as a distraction from the boredom of “peacetime” army life. As he told his father, “the heckling which goes on makes it better than going to a concert”.
Gilbert’s father sent him information about Ben Turner, the Labour candidate for their West Yorkshire constituency of Batley and Morley. This was a new constituency created for the 1918 election. At first, Gilbert was uncertain about Labour. However, studying the material sent by his father changed his mind. Gilbert decided to support Ben Turner because of Labour’s opposition to continued conscription. Conscription had been introduced in Britain only in 1916, when Gilbert himself was called up.
Letters from William Gardner A letter home from William Gardner 17th December 1918Original Source: University of Leeds Special Collections
William Gardner’s letters home show the anger felt by many soldiers during the 1918 Khaki Election. William hopes that Prime Minister Lloyd George “is about to get as big and ultimately as decisive a check as the Boche got”.
When the First World War broke out, William Gardner left his job in the civil service to enlist in the Queen’s Westminster Rifles. After fighting on the Western Front, Greece and the Near East, he shared the resentment felt by many servicemen at being excluded from political debate.
Letters from William Gardner A letter home from William Gardner 4th December 1918Original Source: University of Leeds Special Collections
William was concerned about whether he would still have a job when he got home. His letters show his anxiety that ‘stay-at-homes’ would have taken all the best jobs, leaving nothing for those who had volunteered to fight. In fact, ‘healthy’ ex-servicemen were usually prioritised over non-combatants in the post-war jobs market, but men like William were understandably anxious as they waited to be demobilised.
Letters from William Gardner A letter home from William Gardner 4th December 1918Original Source: University of Leeds Special Collections
William also records the anger in the camps, commenting that very few soldiers he knew actually voted, and that there would be a “rumpus” if there was not another election following their demobilisation. For soldiers stationed overseas, the Khaki Election did not give the government a legitimate mandate. William felt hopeful that Labour would win in the next election. In fact, the Conservatives won in 1922, but Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour Party formed a government in 1924.
Postcard with poemOriginal Source: University of Leeds Special Collections
This postcard with its humorous poem asks people to help a war veteran find a job. After the war, many servicemen struggled to find work and get by. Because of this, some turned to more radical political parties.
Unemployment was one of the biggest political issues in Britain in the 1920s. In 1922, the unemployment rate was around 14%. This was more than three times today’s figure, and affected both civilians and war veterans. As some of the other stories contained in this exhibition show, disabled ex-servicemen often struggled to find work. Frequently, disabled civilians felt even worse off, as they believed they stood little chance of finding employment when compared with a man with medals.
Even for those with jobs, working conditions and wages for the masses continued to be poor, and in some cases worsened after the war. In 1926, the General Strike was held in protest at wage reductions for miners, one of Britain’s most important industries. In contrast, life was better for the middle classes in this period, who could take advantage of low property prices and an array of new consumer goods. Politics therefore became increasingly subject to class divisions following the enfranchisement of all working class men in 1918, the international impact of the Russian Revolution, and the rise to prominence of the Labour Party.
All London Tenants’ Defence League, London’s Homes for Heroes, 1932 All London Tenants’ Defence League, London’s Homes for Heroes, 1932 (1932)Original Source: University of Leeds Special Collections
This pamphlet bemoans the failure of post-war governments to live up to their social promises. Thousands of survivors of the war faced poverty and unemployment. As a result of the Depression, the 1930s saw increasing desperation and political polarisation.
All London Tenants’ Defence League, London’s Homes for Heroes, 1932 back pageOriginal Source: University of Leeds Special Collections
On 24 November 1918, Prime Minister David Lloyd George promised “to make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in”. Housing was central to this vision, as the government embarked on an effort to build half a million new homes. This ambitious social reform failed in the short run, but helped lay the foundations for the modern system of council housing in Britain. War veterans were identified as one of the main groups who were supposed to benefit from new housing.
All London Tenants’ Defence League, London’s Homes for Heroes, 1932 page 1Original Source: University of Leeds Special Collections
This pamphlet was produced by the All London Tenants’ Defence League, a communist grassroots organisation which helped working class families fight against corrupt landlords. In particular, the pamphlet shows how some war veterans were suffering terrible housing conditions which did not always conform to even basic legal requirements. Although an example of political propaganda, this is a damning indictment of the failure of post-war governments to provide for veterans’ welfare.
Article by Ramsay MacDonald, 1921 Article by Ramsay MacDonald, 1921 (1921)Original Source: University of Leeds Special Collections
Ramsay MacDonald was one of the founders of the Labour Party. In this article he describes how, despite his narrow defeat by a Victoria Cross winner, Labour was gaining ground amongst disillusioned veterans. In 1924, MacDonald became Labour’s first Prime Minister.
Article by Ramsay MacDonald, 1921 page 1Original Source: University of Leeds Special Collections
In this article written for the Labour Party journal, MacDonald examines how public perceptions of the party were changing. Previously they had been associated more with pacifism, but Labour was rapidly gaining support amongst war veterans and women who had participated in the First World War. In a by-election in Woolwich, home of the Royal Artillery, MacDonald stood against a Conservative candidate who had won the Victoria Cross. MacDonald lost, but only by a very narrow margin. A few years earlier this would have seemed unthinkable in a constituency with such a strong army presence. Labour was increasingly attractive to war survivors because of policies such as their support for shell-shocked veterans and campaign to abolish the military death penalty.
Article by Ramsay MacDonald, 1921 page 2Original Source: University of Leeds Special Collections
Despite this setback, MacDonald sounds very optimistic about the future for his party. This proved to be entirely justified. In December 1923, the general election produced a hung parliament. Although Labour was not the largest party, MacDonald formed a minority government and became Britain’s first socialist Prime Minister. Despite only being in office for less than a year, he returned to Downing Street in 1929. As a result of the campaigning of backbench Labour MPs, in 1930 the military death penalty was finally abolished in Britain.
Curator introductions from Alex Shaw and Eilis Boyle Alex Shaw on the Represenation of the People Act 1918Original Source: University of Leeds Special Collections
1929 Election Posters Miner's Wives posterOriginal Source: University of Leeds Special Collections
From 1928, men and women had equal voting rights in Britain. This made the 1929 election a landmark moment as parties competed to appeal to new women voters. These posters use very different imagery - a modern independent woman and a more traditional housewife.
The 1918 Representation of the People Act gave the vote to all working class men by abolishing the previous qualification of owning property, but only enfranchised women over the age of thirty who owned property (or whose husbands did). It was not until 1928 that a new Act gave women equal voting rights to men. As a result, the 1929 general election was the first time that women in their twenties were able to vote. It is sometimes therefore called the ‘Flapper Election’.
1929 Election Posters The New Voter posterOriginal Source: University of Leeds Special Collections
In this poster, ‘The New Voter’ looks modern, independent and stylish. The imagery used is the embodiment of the interwar flapper. The ‘flapper’ had a mixed reception in interwar Britain: for some, she was a positive symbol of modernity while for others she symbolised the undermining of traditional values after the war. This poster is trying to encourage votes for Samuel Perry, a candidate for the centre-left Co-operative Party. The other poster, from the Labour Party, employs imagery to appeal to women in more traditional household roles.
Of the seven new women MPs victorious in the 1929 general election, five represented the Labour Party and one was a Liberal candidate. Eleanor Rathbone won the Combined English Universities constituency (which included the University of Leeds) as an independent. Eleanor was a long-standing advocate of women’s rights who fought for the payment of family allowances directly to women, and was an early campaigner against female genital mutilation in Britain’s colonies.
Despite the success achieved by women such as Eleanor, it is worth remembering that until December 2016, there had been fewer women MPs in British history than there were men sitting in the House of Commons at any one time. Class was also an important factor in early women’s politics: of the seven new female MPs in 1929, two were doctors and another two were titled ‘Ladies’.
This exhibition was originally on show at the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery, University of Leeds, from 31 August 2018 - 31 January 2019. The exhibition was co curated by PhD researchers Eilis Boyle and Alexander Shaw with Professor Alison Fell.