If there was one thing almost every British soldier on the Western Front wanted, it was a “Blighty”. Allegedly an anglicized Urdu word for “Britain”, a Blighty was a wound that was bad enough to prohibit further service in the war, but not bad enough to kill or disfigure one too badly. Bullet wounds to the extremities were highly sought after for this reason. In a letter home, Robert Graves explained that some would do almost anything to get a Blighty and told a funny story that he had heard:
“A bloke in the Munsters once wanted a cushy, so he waves his hand above the parapet to catch Fritz’s attention. Nothing doing. He waves his arms about for a couple of minutes. Nothing doing, not a shot. He puts his elbows on the fire-step, hoists his body upside-down and waves his legs about till he gets blood to the head. Not a shot did old Fritz fire. ‘Oh’ says the Munster man, ‘I don’t believe there’s a damned square-head there. Where’s the German army to?’ He has a peek over the top—crack! He gets it in the head.” (1)
The story was likely embellished or fabricated, but it says a lot about the mind-set of the trenches. Upon hearing that his friend had been shot in the neck and taken to a field hospital, Graves felt happy for his friend—happy that he would be spared the ordeal of an upcoming attack. To be wounded was the epitome of luck. To be wounded was to get a ticket home.
But once home, many discovered that something had changed. German Zeppelin attacks had brought the war to the Home Front after a fashion, but the war itself—the day-by-day grind of the trenches—remained a dim, barely imagined nightmare to most civilians. Soldiers on leave, excited to see friends and family and sleep on a real bed, were often astonished to find that home had become an awkward, foreign land. John Lucy, a British soldier on leave, arrived at home in 1915 carrying some unexpected baggage:
“I… was driven with thumping heart to the home of my relations at Montenotte. Their fervent welcomes made me dumb and emotionally upset. Their studied cheerful greetings collapsed into surreptitious tear-wiping behind doors and in other rooms. The ghost of my dead brother had come home with me.” (2)
After six days of leave Robert Graves wrote:
“London seemed unreally itself. Despite the number of uniforms in the streets, the general indifference to, and ignorance about, the war surprised me. Enlistment remained voluntary. The universal catchword was ‘Business as Usual’.
Some friends of the family came in one night, and began telling me of the Zeppelin air-raids, of bombs dropped only three streets off.
‘Well, do you know,’ I said, ‘the other day I was asleep in a house and in the early morning a bomb dropped next door and killed three soldiers who were billeted there, a women, and a child.’
‘Good gracious,’ they cried, ‘what did you do then?’
‘It was a place called Beuvry, about four miles behind the trenches,’ I explained ‘and I was tired out, so I went to sleep again.’ ‘Oh,’ they said, ‘but that happened in France!’ and the look of interest faded from their faces…” (3)
Soldiers back in “Blighty” found that the vast gulf of their experience now separated them from their families, who could no longer understand or relate to them. The Home Front remained focused on their small travails. They worried about food rationing, or Zeppelin raids, and insulted soldiers back from the Front with their disinterest in the war beyond a few stupid and insensitive questions. Soldiers, for their part, scorned the worries of civilians, and deemed them the trivialities of petty minds unfamiliar with real privation. Siegfried Sassoon, a British poet-turned-soldier, wrote a poem where he angrily scolded the British public: “You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye/ Who cheer when soldier lads march by/ Sneak home and pray you’ll never know/ The hell where youth and laughter go.”
Blighty was a fine idea. But for some, it just didn’t exist anymore. John Lucy discovered that:
“I could no longer stomach the rich dishes provided for me after seven months of army rations, and I secretly slept most snugly on the bedroom floor, because I could not rest in a soft bed.
I flew round to see old pals, and surprisingly could not say all I wanted to. The division between the civilian and the man-at-arms was too sharp in thought and values.” (4)
In his book All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque has his main character Paul Baumer return home on leave to an ignorant and distressing society. Baumer feels entirely cut off from his family, and while many ask him about life in the trenches, he finds that he cannot talk about what he has seen, and has no desire to put his experiences into words. In the face of Home Front ignorance and jingoism, he remained mute, angry, and afraid of reflecting too deeply on the war:
I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and to-day. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had only been in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world. Some of these people ask questions, some ask no questions, but one can see that the latter are proud of themselves for their silence; they often say with a wise air that these things cannot be talked about. They plume themselves on it.
When I see them here, in their rooms, in their offices, about their occupations, I feel an irresistible attraction in it, I would like to be here too and forget the war; but also it repels me, it is so narrow, how can that fill a man’s life, he ought to smash it to bits; how can they do it, while out at the front the splinters are whining over the shell-holes and the star-shells go up, the wounded are carried back on waterproof sheets and comrades crouch in the trenches.—They are different men here, men I cannot properly understand, whom I envy and despise. (5)
Graves, Lucy, and Remarque (through Baumer) all make special note of the fact that, while on leave, they fled the company of others and preferred to be alone. The quiet of the countryside was the only thing that could give them any comfort—there was none to be had among people who could not understand what they had seen and done. Each of the three hated the war, and longed to escape, but in the end, each was drawn inexorably back. Baumer, even though he is on leave, cannot stop thinking about his friends at the front. Lucy, and Graves both express relief when they finally get back to France. Much as they might have hated it, the war had become the defining component of their identity. Remarque writes:
“‘It will go pretty hard with us all. But nobody at home seems to worry much about it. Two years of shells and bombs—a man won’t peel that off as easy as a sock.’
We agree that it’s the same for everyone; not only for us here, but everywhere, for everyone who is of our age; to some more, and to others less. It is the common fate of our generation.
Albert expresses it: ‘The war has ruined us for everything.’
He is right. We are not youth any longer. We don’t want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing. We fly from ourselves. From our life… We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer, we believe in the war.” (6)
Through their experiences in the trenches, the war had laid a hold on each person that could not easily be shaken off. They may strive and pray. They might talk fondly of returning home. But whether they liked it or not, they no longer belonged in “Blighty”. They belonged to the war.
1. Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1957), 94 – 95.
2. John F. Lucy, There’s a Devil in the Drum (Uckfield, UK: The Naval & Military Press, 1993), 317 – 318.
3. Graves, Goodbye to All That, 120.
4. Lucy, There’s a Devil in the Drum, 318.
6. Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front, 42.
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