When difficult stories emerge

A chance sighting of a World War One military service record set me off on a tangent.

The record belonged to a man who married one of my great aunts.  The two of them had eleven children, nine of whom survived to adulthood, and between them they produced a total of around forty grandchildren.  What follows is a very sad tale of an unhappy life and marriage, but out of respect to his descendants I shall refer to this man as Mr X.

Having joined up for military service in December 1915, Mr X endured three years of the horrors of war.  Today we’re aware that many of the young men who survived were sent home in 1918 with what we now understand as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but back then the long-term impact was not understood.  We do know that when many of them returned home they were ‘changed’, quite ‘different’ from the young men who had gone away to fight for King and Country a few years earlier.  Perhaps this was the reason for Mr X’s anger and the violence that he inflicted on his wife and young family.

However, Mr X’s life was blighted not only by PTSD.  A note on his service record states that on 20th September 1918, while in France, he suffered a ‘severe shell gas wound’.  It’s likely that this involved actual physical injury from the explosion/ shrapnel combined with effects of mustard gas.

I started to research…

It seems Germany commenced large-scale use of gas as a weapon in January 1915.  Initially, the artillery shells they fired contained liquid xylyl bromide tear gas.  Other forms of gas followed, including chlorine and the deadly phosgene.  However, by 1917 the most common chemical agent used was sulfur mustard, known as ‘mustard gas’.

The purpose of the mustard gas was not to kill the enemy: only about 2-3% of victims actually died.  Rather it was used to harass, disable and disorientate, and to pollute the battlefield.  Being heavier than air, mustard gas settled to the ground as an oily liquid where it sank into the soil, remaining active for several days, weeks, or even months, depending on the weather conditions.  Those exposed to it would start to vomit, while their conjunctiva and eyelids swelled until they were forced shut, leaving the victims temporarily blinded.  This is what had happened to the rows of blinded soldiers we see in WW1 photos, walking in long rows each with an arm on the shoulder of the man in front.

Mustard gas didn’t depend on inhalation to be effective: any contact with skin was sufficient.  Moist red patches would appear immediately, erupting into blisters over the following 24 hours.  Higher concentrations could burn flesh to the bone, particularly if it found its way to the eyes, nose, armpits and groin, where it dissolved in the natural moisture of those areas.  Other symptoms included severe headache, increased pulse and fever.  Internal and external bleeding could follow, as the gas attacked the bronchial tubes, stripping off the mucous membrane.  Blistering in the lungs could lead to pneumonia.  Without doubt, the effects of mustard gas attack were unspeakably painful; and those who were fatally injured could remain like this for four or five weeks before relief came in the form of death.

For the majority who didn’t actually die, many were nevertheless scarred for life.  Respiratory disease and failing eyesight were common post-war afflictions.  Many, although recorded as fit, were left with scar tissue in their lungs, and this left them susceptible to tuberculosis.  It’s now known that around the time of the Second World War, many of the surviving 1918 casualties did indeed die of tuberculosis.

Mr X died in 1935.  Was this the cause of his death?  It’s clear that the seventeen years back in Blighty were not happy, healthy ones for him.  I spent time looking at online trees, hoping that someone might have uploaded a copy of his death certificate, or at least given the cause of death in their notes, but no one had.  What I did read, both as notes on trees and in written accounts circulated by his grandchildren, was that he was badly affected by WW1, physically disabled, and that he took to drink.  He was a big man, and his wife was tiny.  He was violent, and she was no match for him.

Mr X isn’t part of my direct line.  He isn’t even a blood relative, so I wouldn’t normally buy a certificate for his death, but eventually it seemed like an important part of his story was missing.  Finally, I bought the certificate.  His death was recorded as ‘natural causes’, an acute inflammation of the pancreas: it seems it was the drink that did for him in the end.  I still think, though, there’s a good chance that had the awfulness of his life not driven Mr X to drink, he might have died a year or so later, from TB.

I have so many thoughts about Mr X.  I don’t think many people would have mourned his passing, although his wife, now free of him but widowed and with ten mouths to feed, must have felt she was tossing about somewhere between the devil and the deep blue sea.  The 1930s were a hard time for working class people, but in a time when many were suffering, it seems this family really stood out as being poor as church mice.  We can’t discount the possibility that Mr X might just have been a violent, unpleasant bully.  But surely the more likely reason for his behaviour is the horrors of war torturing him for the rest of his days.

Mrs X’s life too was transformed from whatever it might have been to a life of anger, violence, harsh words and little love, and perhaps she too was experiencing a form of PTSD after her treatment at the hands of her husband.  Those who remember her tend to speak of a strange, solitary and unloving person.  I never met her, and indeed our families seem to have parted ways during these inter-war years.  The philosophy of the time was ‘you don’t interfere between man and wife’.  Thankfully this approach has gone out of fashion.  Mrs X needed support.  Mr X had needed support too.

Family research isn’t always about loving families and happy memories.  Sometimes life is terrible, unfair and unbearable.  But even when faced with the most unpleasant of individuals, even though we can’t forgive and shouldn’t excuse their behaviour, we can at least try to look for the person inside and how they got to be who they became.  And we can send them some love.