Great War West Sussex: those who returned and those who were left behind

By Emma Worrall

Men returning from the war faced many problems, financial, mental, and physical, issues which affected their families too. Others did not return at all, creating a new set of challenges for their wives, children, and parents.

Some servicemen were fortunate enough to return to jobs kept open for them, such as International Stores’, Shippams’ and West Sussex County Council (WSCC) employees. WSCC even reinstated wounded soldiers as police constables. Others found new work through local schemes, such as Horsham Post Office employing invalided soldiers. Others began new occupations or found other ways to supplement their disability pensions or income. The post-war Middleton Orchestra, based near Bognor, consisted of discharged soldiers.

International Stores was one business which actively encouraged solders to re-join the company

For those who couldn’t return to their previous lives, new ways of caring for and supporting these veterans was needed. Training programmes and other projects were set up. A Worthing area scheme involved retraining men to be caretakers, gardeners, lift attendants, motor-vehicle drivers and shop assistants. In 1917 a WSCC scheme trained disabled ex-servicemen in agricultural jobs and market  gardening and by July 1919 the Council was leasing 800 acres to ex-servicemen for smallholdings.

Support groups were set up for veterans and for bereaved families, such as the ‘Comrades of the Great War’ who were very active in Horsham. By March 1920 the group had a membership of 563.

Agricultural training scheme for ex-servicemen (WOC/CM83/5/1)

A pension for many disabled and discharged men was the main form of income until employment or training could be found. Pensions for disabled ex-servicemen put a huge financial strain on the state, given that a quarter of those who returned were entitled to these. The application process, therefore, was particularly robust, resulting in some difficult cases.  Mrs Atfield, mother of 9 children, from Durrington, whose husband George returned wounded and died of flu at home, was initially refused a proper pension until a local and national campaign remedied this.

Those on the Home Front, anxiously awaiting news of their loved ones, also felt the strain of the war upon them. Local newspapers report many inquests into the deaths of those who could take no more. John Johnson, a father from Crawley killed himself in 1916, having already lost one son, another badly wounded and a third just conscripted. Ex-servicemen also suffered. In February 1919 ex Artillery officer Arthur Frankham shot himself at Worthing railway station, having suffered from gas attacks and shell shock in France.

The final burden was provided by the influenza pandemic in 1918-19 which killed millions. West Sussex suffered 387 deaths in 1918. Bombardier Jack Smith from Horsham lost his leg whilst fighting in France. He survived and was training to become a hairdresser, only to succumb to double pneumonia following influenza.

The challenges of life in post-war West Sussex for returned ex-servicemen and for the bereaved were many and complex but generally in West Sussex the financial challenges were met, governmental organisations helped with grants, allowances and job creation schemes, and some non-governmental organisations also played a key role.

Emma will be talking about the legacy of the First World War as part of the Record Office’s series of Tuesday Talks. Find out more about forthcoming talks and other events on WSRO’s website: website

Find out more about the First World War in West Sussex on the Great War West Sussex website

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