Veterans needed to be reinserted into civilian life, be offered new opportunities, and very often, they needed to be demobilised in the soul, as well as the ways of life. It was not an easy path. But they were in such great numbers after the war that no political party could ignore them.
The demobilisation that started on Armistice Day, 11 November 1918, was a massive undertaking for all countries that emerged from the Great War. It meant to convert a four-year war economy into a peace economy, creating new balances inside and between nations and – not least of all – bringing home millions of people.
Demobilisation wasn’t always a neat plan. In fact, often, it wasn’t. Some nations had gone through great changes in the years of war – like Russia. Others didn’t exist anymore – like Austria-Hungary.
But even in the case of well-organised demobilisation, things could go astray. Soldiers and other war personnel often had to wait days before the order came to move toward home. Men waited around, and tempers could go short. Disorders weren’t unheard of, and not just in the clearing stations but also on transports, as people were often cramped together on trains and ships.
And all these people needed to be fed. They needed new, clean civilian clothes (which weren’t always welcome) and a shelter while they waited. Arms needed to be recollected.
It was a huge organisational effort for all nations.
Back into civilian life
On the home front – what used to be the home front – things weren’t any easier.
Reorganising the economy, as well as social life, was a staggering political and administrative task.
Millions of men wanted to get home and pick up the pieces where they had left them. They wanted to get back their former life and employment. But the world had changed as they were away at war. They had changed too. The work market had changed.
Young men who had dropped out of school, or had interrupted their professional education, were faced with the difficulties of finding a job in the weakened post-war economies. Formerly established older men found themselves in professional and economic competitions with younger men as well as women, who had entered the work market in unprecedented numbers during the war. Besides, women were displaced from the work they had performed for four years, or – in the case of battlefield nurses and other women who helped on the battlefields – when discharged from the army, they found themselves back in a social role that felt outdated and dull.
And there were armies of physically and mentally injured people for whom finding and keeping a job proved to be extremely difficult.
Getting back into civilian life often proved to be harder than just going home. Men and women who had served in the war found that away from the battlefield and the camaraderie, the strong bond, the mutual support, they felt vulnerable and lost.
No surprise, then, that many veterans joined the many veteran associations born in the years after the war. These associations were peer groups that allowed veterans to meet and share their very own experience of war. Through these associations, veterans were also able to commemorate the war and their fallen comrades. The spirit of these groups became very strong since these men believed that their sacrifice – which sometimes was of their time, sometimes of their mental health, sometimes of their body – had given them a moral authority to speak about these matters. So they felt they had a mission in defending the interest of their members and the memory of the war and of their fallen comrades.
From the ‘inside’, from the viewpoint of the ex-servicemen, all who had fought in the war was a veteran. But from the ‘outside’, from the viewpoint of the state, not all veterans were equal. Faced with impressive numbers of returning servicemen, all states struggled. Demobilisation meant disarming soldiers, turning them back into citizens, and giving them a fair chance at a new life. It frequently meant teaching them a new job and reacquainting them with a life that had gone on while they were fighting.
It was a huge, expensive job, and many governments didn’t have the resources to help everyone who deserved it. Most states introduced welfare concepts closely linked to work, with invalidity predominantly defined by a percentage of disability to work and provide for themselves. Many veterans and their family who had a right to a pension didn’t receive it.
Yet, with all these difficulties, a solution to the veterans’ problems was to be found as soon as possible. Veterans were very numerous and vocal. They had a right to speak up because of their sacrifice, especially when it came to invalids. So they were a potential risk for social unrest and revolution. All parties tried to satisfy them and to bring them on their site, though all veteran associations claimed to be apolitical. It was the best way to get results, whoever governed the state.
History Extra – First World War soldiers: life after the Armistice
International Encyclopedia of the First World War – Veterans’ Associations
International Encyclopedia of the First World War – Demobilization
IWM – Voices of the First World War: Homecoming