Little help (and no sympathy) for Heroes

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In October 2007 the charity Help for Heroes was launched. On its front page its makes this powerful statement:

‘Today, seven people will be medically discharged from the Armed Forces and their lives will change forever. In an instant, these highly-trained individuals will lose the camaraderie, purpose and career which has been their life’.

This is not a new phenomenon of course, but has perhaps been given greater focus and attention since the Gulf War and growing number of related experiences of men and women who have served in the armed forces and come home with both physical and mental injuries. This has permeated all levels of society, and become a topic for film and TV dramas (such as the most recent BBC series, The Bodyguard ).

Between October 1853 and March 1856 Britain was at war in the Crimea, battling with France and Turkey against the Russian Empire and its allies. Ultimately Britain and France prevailed but there was a high cost in lives lost and others altered forever. This war is often remembered as one in which more soldiers died of disease than of wounds sustained by enemy action; its symbolic ‘hero’ is Florence Nightingale, the ‘lady with the lamp’ and not Lord cardigan, the officer that led the doomed charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava.

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During the Crimean War the island of Malta served as a hospital base for British casualties returning from the front. Given the huge numbers of men needing care the Valletta Station Hospital (one of four military hospitals on Malta) was quickly overrun and deemed inadequate. Sadly the necessary reform and rebuilding required to upgrade Malta’s institutions to cope with the numbers wounded in ‘modern’ conflicts  didn’t open until after the Crimean war was over.

Nor was there adequate support for veterans who returned from the Crimean carrying the scars of their involvement with them. When Henry Arlett was discharged from the Royal Artillery at Christmas 1857 he had been given a sovereign and sent on his way. Henry had served in the Crimea and had been invalided home after spending  time at a military base on Malta  recuperating.

Back in Lambeth he had struggled to find work as his back pain continued to make manual work all but impossible. Without an obvious trade and deprived of the support of his regiment all Henry could rely on for money was his wife. She took in laundry, one of the lowest paid domestic trades, and in the summer of 1858 even that work was scarce.

Faced with grinding poverty Henry donned his uniform (which he’d kept in pristine condition) and went out on to the streets to beg. He did quite well by comparison to the usual run of vagrants that infested the capital. According to an officer of the Mendicity Society (which campaigned against begging and brought private prosecutions against  those that practised it) ‘in a short time he got as much as half-a-crown in coppers’.

The officer had him arrested and brought before Mr Norton at Lambeth Police court where the magistrate asked the former artilleryman to explain himself. Henry told him of his service and his discharge, of his family’s troubles and his reasons for begging but instead of sympathy or charity he received only the scorn of the man on the bench.

Mr Norton told him that if he was unable to support himself through work then he should go to the workhouse to be relieved. On discovering that Arlett was born in the City and had no settlement elsewhere he instructed him to return there with his wife; in effect washing Lambeth’s hands of any responsibility for his care.

You must be a mean-spirited person to disgrace the uniform of the finest corps in her Majesty’s service by begging in it’, he told him. ‘I shall give you a light sentence of seven days and on the termination of your imprisonment you must go to your parish, and if you are caught begging again your punishment will be much more severe’.

Arlett was unfazed by the magistrate’s condemnation of him:

This uniform suit is mine, and while there is a single shred of it together I shall not cease to beg’,

he declared before he was led away.

Just over 100,000 British and Imperial troops went to the Crimea. Of these 2,755 were killed in action and a further 1,847 died of their wounds. A staggering 17,580 died of disease. Henry Arlett was one of 18,280 British troops wounded in the conflict. In total then, of the 107,865 on the British strength 22,182 didn’t come home (around 22%) and another 18% were directly wounded in some way. That means that 40% of those sent to fight the Russians were casualties in some way or another.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, September 10, 1858]

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