Over the past four years, the events of the First World War have been reverently commemorated with important dates like the outbreak of war, the Somme, Passchendaele, and the Armistice all receiving special remembrance. During this time, not only did I research a book based on the war, The Flag, I also made a tragic discovery regarding a member of my family that took place in the aftermath of the war. The past four years have been a personal journey that has given me both moments of great satisfaction and sorrow.
There is no doubt in my mind that the First World War should be considered one of the most consequential wars ever fought; the ramifications of it are still felt today. For those that did return, not only did they bare the physical wounds and scars of the conflict, but many suffered with what we now know to be Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Whilst researching my book I was made aware the effects the war had upon millions of men. And it’s during this research that I became aware of what the war had done to my own great-grandfather.
This is a photograph of Henry George Weller, and his wife, Ellen Weller. The young boy in the middle is my father. It’s the only photograph I have ever seen of my great-grandfather.
I was sent the photograph from a distant relative through ancestry.com. It had no date but as my father was born in December 1940, it can be dated as about 1943-44. During the Second World War, their daughter, Kathleen, was living with them in Redhill, Surrey, while her husband was in the army.
At first I thought it was just a normal photograph of the time – proud grandparents with their grandson. But the more I looked at it, they more I started to realize that something wasn’t quite right. There is a half-attempted smile but it was something in his eyes, a vacant look, the thousand-yard stare I'd heard about in veterans. Looking at him I felt an intense sadness that's difficult to hide.
I'd heard he'd had served in the First World War, but I knew very little else. My father (who died in 2000) never mentioned him to me, and my mother can only remember that his family hardly ever spoke of him. It was like he never really existed.
Henry George Weller was 31 years old when he was called up for service in December 1915. After just a few weeks at the training depot in Guildford he boarded a troop ship and was sent to 1/5th Battalion, The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment who were dug in around the city of Nasariyeh in Mesopotamia (now Iraq). For the next two years his battalion fought the Turks in terrible conditions. You need only read excerpts from the battalions’s war diary to understand what they faced. As well as losing men to enemy fire, they regularly died from dysentery, heat relative illnesses, and cholera.
I was not able to find the exact date he arrived back in England but it's likely to have been early 1919. The only surviving army record of his shows he was discharged on 4th June 1919. The reason given is King’s Regulations Para 392 (xvi). This meant he was medically discharged and described as “no longer physically fit for service.” That same day, he was admitted to Netherne Hospital – Surrey’s County Asylum. Medical records show he was then released in February 1920, describing his condition as “recovered.”
In August 1934 he was once again admitted to Netherne Hospital. On the medical register his mental disorder is listed as “Melancholia – recurrent” and that it had lasted for at least six months with factors listed as “Prolonged mental stress.” He remained in Netherne until his death in 1959. His death certificate lists the cause of death as “Bronchopneumonia due to senility.” He was 77 years old, his wife Ellen had died a year earlier.
When I discovered this information, I realized the importance of the photograph of my great-grandfather. If it was taken about 1943-44 then he would have only been home on a short visit. Patients permanently admitted to asylums with post war mental illnesses were sometimes allowed home on short visits – this must have been one of them.
I cannot begin to imagine the pain and anguish he was in that led to him being institutionalized for so many years. The cost of war on a country is open to debate; the cost of war on men that fight in them is immeasurable.