Sapper, Joseph Burn, Royal Engineers, of 18, Grove Terrace, Spyvee Street, Hull, had served in France, before being posted to East Africa. He committed suicide, by cutting his throat, on 10th June 1917, aged 23. He had served in the army for over five years, was judged to be of sound mind and his family were refused his war pension.
Driver, Charles Millson, 39836, 107th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery. Died of Suicide on 07/06/1915, aged 18. Buried at Amesbury Cemetery, Wiltshire. His parents, Charles and Eliza, lived at 2, Floral Grove, Arundel Street, Hull were refused a war pension.
Private, Thomas E. Copson, of the Machine Gun Corps, had been a former prisoner of war. He committed suicide on the 11/02/1919, aged 33.
Lieutenant, Arthur Franklin, was found dead in a pool of blood, in the waiting room at Worthing Railway station. He had a bullet wound to the head. (Hull Daily Mail 19/12/1919)
Private, Thomas Alfred Lloyd, RAMC, depressed with influenza, cut his throat, on the 24/02/1919.
Private, Walter Drinkall, 170240, Durham Light Infantry, from Great Union Street, Hull, was discharged from the army, as disabled. Committed suicide, while insane, on 01/06/1924, aged 30.
While their stories were reported in the Hull Daily Mail, their deaths were usually unrecorded by the military.
One of the “forgotten” casualties of the First World War, were the number of suicides after it. Most combatants were not professional soldiers, but civilians who had volunteered for war service. No training could prepare these civilian soldiers for the stresses and strains of trench life or “new” terror weapons they would face, such as tanks, poison gas, flame throwers, aerial bombing and high explosive shells. Many of these men would have witnessed death at close hand, seen their friends killed and wounded, or have been injured themselves. In Britain alone, some 6 million men served in the war, with over 750,000 deaths and over 2 million men wounded. These included many young men, with 46% of all British men aged 15- 49 and two thirds of men in their 20’s serving in the war. The exposure to these horrifying events would have undermined the best of soldiers, both physically, and mentally. They would have experienced great anxiety with very few support services available to help them. It is remarkable how so many survivors coped and adapted to life after the war. The survivors returned to a society that had never been told the truth about modern warfare, or could ever understand. It is therefore understandable that many men traumatised by their war experiences felt frustrated, isolated and found it easier not to talk about the war or take their own lives.
There was stigma attached to Suicide and these deaths were often not reported, mis reported, or recorded inconsistently. Suicide was illegal. It became a crime under common law in the mid 13th Century and was condemned by the Church as a mortal sin. Attempted suicide was still punished by a fine or prison, in England and Wales, until 1961. After the Great war, the Ministry of Pensions considered Suicide as a form of mis-conduct and often refused to pay a pension to any soldiers family who had committed suicide. From 1923, the Scottish Charter for the honour roll of the fallen, explicitly forbade the inclusion of suicide cases.
Suicides required a public inquiry, which were reported in newspapers and could bring “shame” on a family. Suicides were also outlawed by the church and often prevented proper burials and memorial services for the victims. Suicides could also nullify a claim for a war pension on which families and children depended. Peter Barham’s book “Forgotten Lunatic of the Great War”, reveals that military authorities attempted discrediting soldiers who had taken their own lives. Assumptions were made about the men’s moral integrity and personal strength (cowardice), or alternative reasons sought other than military service (such as domestic difficulties), all with the intention of evading widows’ pensions.
To avoid publicity and protect the victim’s families, it was easier just not to talk about suicides. Such deaths were often “covered up” and recorded in alternative ways. It was sometimes easier to report suicides, as an accident, or as misadventure. Newspapers of the time often report unusual and implausible deaths. Men that “accidentally” drowned, carelessly fell off trains, or shot themselves in “hunting” accidents. Others of men who died by mistakenly taking rat poison, or other overdoses. Of victims, who vaguely succumbed to “war injuries”, alcoholism, or “melancholy” . There are anecdotes of soldier suicides, whose former comrades were called to “take charge” of the situation. These friends and family members would often shield the victim’s relatives from the gory details and collude with officials, to avoid publicity, and further scrutiny. As many Policemen, officials and Doctors had also experienced the war, there was some consensus to agree a suitable conclusion, that ensured that victims’ dependants received a war pension.
The psychological effects of the Great War were just not understood. About 25% of those discharged from active service during the war were ‘psychiatric casualties’. 80,000 men were suffering from shell-shock, a condition viewed by the public as a sign of emotional weakness or cowardice. While there was some recognition of “Shell Shock”, the existence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was not officially recognised until 1980, by the US government, after the Vietnam war. It was only then that researchers began to take an interest in the illness and its affect on soldiers’ families. Researchers from the Centre for Military Health Research at King’s College, London, now agree that there is a close relationship between the incidence of death and injury on the battlefield and the number of psychiatric casualties. In a study of people receiving war pensions for psychiatric illness between 1940 and 1980, a team of researchers found that the 10 most common symptoms were anxiety, depression, sleep problems, headache, irritability/anger, tremor/shaking, difficulty completing tasks, poor concentration, repeated fears and avoidance of social contact. Some of these symptoms could contribute to the “shared emotional cauldron” in the traumatised veterans’ families, which led some children to also share their father’s pain.
We can only speculate how the trauma of war blighted the lives of many servicemen and their families long after the war. The recent release of Widows Pension records from the First World War, reveal an insight from the widows and what they had to contend with. They report premature deaths of servicemen after the war, that their men were “just not the same when they returned from the war”, that their “nerves were gone.”, that men “had taken to drink” were “withdrawn”, “angry” or “violent”. These premature deaths continued well into the 1930’s, and while they were not all suicides, we should be alert to the fact that some were. In addition, there were the many millions of largely silent victims of the Great War: the widows, parents, siblings, children and friends who lost loved ones between 1914 and 1918. The full extent of these stories may never be known, but the 1921 Census and the release of more pension records may reveal more of these unrecorded war casualties.