Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, April 9, 2021

Reflections on Being Wounded by Lt. Donald Hankey


If you are wounded, ‘Blighty’; if killed, the Resurrection!

Lt. Donald Hankey, KIA, 12 October 1916

Lt. Hankey Before the War

[Ed. note: Lt. Hankey, then a corporal, had been wounded at Ypres on 30 July 1915. After recuperation, he was commissioned in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and sent to the Somme, where he would eventually perish.]

Very soon, however, the wounded soldier begins to long to be less petted, less lionized, and instead to be treated as a rational being who is entitled to a certain elementary respect.  One can only speak from personal observation. One place differs from another. But from what the writer has seen and experienced he judges that the one thing which a wounded soldier cannot expect is to be treated as a man. He is sent to "Blighty." He arrives at a hospital. His chief pleasure, oddly enough, lies in the prospect of seeing something of his relations and friends. He is surprised and indignant when he finds that he is only allowed to see visitors of his own choice two at a time, for two hours, twice a week. On the other five days he has to put up with the licensed visitors of the hospital. They may be very elevating and amiable people; but he feels no conceivable interest in them. He is still further dismayed when he discovers that under no circumstances may he visit his home while he is a patient. He may go to tea with Lady Snooks, or the Duchess of Downshire; but not with his wife or his mother. The writer's neighbor in the hospital ward was a case in point. He was a man of about thirty who, at the outbreak of war, was holding a responsible position in Sydney. He had all the self-respect which is typical of the colonial of even a few years' standing. He was receiving ten minutes' electrical treatment per diem, with a view to restoring sensation to one of his hands. Otherwise he was able-bodied. His father lived within twenty minutes' walk of the hospital; but not only was he not allowed to live at home and attend as an out-patient, he was not even allowed to visit his home. He was told that the treatment would have to be continued for some six months, and meanwhile he must be a prisoner in the hospital. 

At the V.A.D. convalescent home to which the writer was subsequently transferred, and which was regulated from the hospital, there were several married men whose homes were within reach. They were absolutely forbidden to visit them. One man, who had been in hospital for nine months without ever going home, was so disgusted that he eventually took French leave for a couple of days. On his return he was put in the punishment ward of the main hospital, where he was deprived of tobacco and visitors, and was informed that when he was discharged he would be sent to his battalion for punishment! His comment was, "You'll see; when this war is over it will be just as it was after South Africa. We shall be so much dirt." When we did leave the grounds it had to be in the conspicuous garb, of a military convalescent, that all men might stare, and under the escort of a nurse. Many a quiet, sensible fellow preferred not to go out at all.

New Patients

Another example of the humiliation to which wounded soldiers are subject refers to their difficulty in obtaining their arrears of pay. One man, who had got the eight days' furlough to which a soldier is entitled on leaving hospital, could only obtain twenty-four shillings "advance of pay," though entitled to many pounds. It barely covered his train fare, and left him nothing for paying his living expenses (and his relations were very poor) or for pocket money. The Army is the only profession which I know in which a man receives, not the money to which he is entitled, but such proportion of it as the authorities like to disburse.

This is how the authorities satirize the lionizers, and not all the petting and the lionizing in the world will compensate for the denial of the elementary rights of a man., the right to choose his own visitors, to visit his own home, and to receive the money which he has earned. A man soon tires of being petted and lionized, and craves in vain for the sane respect which is a man's due.

I am aware that there are many hospitals where soldiers are treated much more rationally, and I have never heard that they have abused their reasonable liberty. Nevertheless I feel that it is worth while to utter a protest against the state of affairs described above because it is, after all, so typical of the general failure of the Press, the public, and the powers that be to recognize that the soldier who has fought for his country has earned the right to be regarded as a man. He doesn't want to be petted. Heroics nauseate him. He is not a child or a hero. He is just a man who has done his duty, and he wants a man's due.

It is desirable that soldiers should receive their due now; but it is much more vitally important that when the war is over, and the craze for petting and lionizing has died down, it should be recognized that the soldier who has fought for his country is something more than a pet that has lost his popularity, and a lion that has ceased to roar. There is grave danger that all that will survive of the present mixed attitude towards the soldier will be the attitude of authority, which regards him as an irresponsible animal. 

Source:  A Student in Arms, Donald Hankey, 1917

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