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Land fit for heroes
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J.B. Priestley's English Journey first published in 1934 contains an account of a reunion of his old battalion in a Bradford pub.

A home fit for a hero?
London, 1920s.

"Several of us had arranged with the secretary to see that original members of the battalion to whom the price of the dinner was prohibitive were provided with free tickets. But this, he told me, had not worked very well; and my old platoon comrades confirmed this, too, when I asked about one or two men. They were so poor, these fellows, that they said they could not attend the dinner even if provided with free tickets because they felt that their clothes were not good enough..."

"They were with us, swinging along, while the women and old men cheered, in that early battalion of Kitchener's New Army, were with us when kings, statesmen, general officers, all reviewed us, when the crowds threw flowers, blessed us, cried over us; and then stood in the mud and water, scrambled through the broken strands of barbed wire, saw the sky darken and the earth open with red hot steel, and came back as official heroes and also as young-old workmen wanting to pick up their jobs and their ordinary life again; and now, in 1933, they could not even join us in a tavern because they had no decent coats to their backs. We could drink to the tragedy of the dead; but we could only stare at one another, in pitiful embarrassment, over this tragi-comedy of the living, who had fought for a world that did not want them, who had come back to exchange their uniforms for rags."

The following heartrending account of the lot of the ex-soldier in 1923 comes from Sydney Chaplin, who had served with the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry

I had a walk round and eventually sat on a seat on the Embankment. I must have dozed off because it was dark as I woke up, so I decided to stay put till morning. I woke as the dawn was breaking and what a sight it was. All the seats were full of old soldiers in all sorts of dress - mostly khaki - and a lot more were lying on the steps, some wrapped up in old newspapers. Men who had fought in the trenches, now unwanted and left to starve were all huddled together. I was on the end of a seat so I eased my fingers into my pocket to get a cigarette.

"That smells good," said the voice of the man next to me.

I recognised him at once, and handed him a cigarette. "Would you like a light, Major?"

"Good lord, Corporal..."

We stood up and looked at each other. "What about a spot of tea?" I asked.

He spread his hands and said "I'm flat broke."

So I took him to a coffee stall and we had a mug of tea and two slices of bread and dripping each. The Major told me he had been caught out by one of the many crooks who were battening onto old soldiers.

These offered shares in a business, producing false books, and when the money had been paid over they just disappeared.

Later I met a man crying in a doorway. He had on an army greatcoat and a turban and a tray round his neck with lucky charms on it. Another, unwanted after 3 years in the trenches. He and his wife were penniless when some crook offered a chance to earn easy money for five shillings He pawned his wife's wedding ring to get it, and in return he got a tray, a turban and a dozen or so lucky charms to sell at 6d each. Now after a day without anything to eat or drink he was broken-hearted at the thought of going home to his wife without a penny. He was an ex-CSM.

Extract from Lyn Macdonald Voices & Images from the Great War   us edition

Jim Hooley grew up in a poor area of Stockport, near Manchester in the years after the war. In A Hillgate Childhood (1981) he remembers the frequent sight of people unable to pay their rent being evicted by bailiffs.

(The furniture would be taken out of the house and left on the pavement . The father would stay to watch it, while neighbours looked after his wife and children. One case always stood out in his memory.)

"On my way to school I had to pass an old disused public house. A family had taken up residence in this building. I knew the boy who lived there: his mother and father were quite respectable. However, one morning on my way to school I saw a crowd of people round the old building.. Making my way to the front of the crowd I could see the old familiar scene - another eviction. Next morning, on my way to school, I again saw a crowd round the old pub. On looking at the scene, I saw three first World War medals placed on an old sideboard which the bailiffs had taken out of the house the day before. A lady in the crowd told me that the father had got back into the building during the night and hanged himself."

PoppyBehind the Window by H.V.Morton tells the story of a poignant encounter with a disabled ex-soldier

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Tuesday 20 December 2005