Remembering John Galsworthy: International Advocate for Soldiers Disabled in War





Dr. Reznick is Deputy Chief of the History of Medicine Division in the U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, Honorary Research Fellow in the Center for First World War Studies of the University of Birmingham, and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He is the author, most recently, of John Galsworthy and Disabled Soldiers of the Great War, with an Illustrated Selection of His Writings (Manchester University Press, 2009), and he is a collaborator with California-based composer Jason V. Barabba to envision a piece for chamber choir inspired by the wartime writings of John Galsworthy

This Veterans Day, media outlets of every kind will feature stories about medical care and philanthropic support provided to men and women who have sustained permanent injury through military service in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  As these stories appear and calls for remembrance make headlines, the humanitarianism of John Galsworthy—one of the most prolific and best-selling authors of the twentieth century—deserves attention.  His advocacy for soldiers disabled in World War I should remind us of the human cost of war.  It should also inspire us to remember disabled veterans of today and support their participation whether in further military service or in civilian society when their service has concluded.

During his lifetime (1867-1933), John Galsworthy produced an immense body of work, including twenty novels, over two dozen plays, numerous collections of essays and poetry, and more than one hundred fifty short stories.  He received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1932, and alongside this honor he is best recognized for his epic sequence of novels and ‘interludes’ about the upper-middle-class Forsyte family.  Yet while Galsworthy’s name has become synonymous with TheForsyte Saga, his reputation in this context overshadows another he achieved during the Great War, which was his humanitarian support for and his compositions about soldiers disabled in the “war to end all wars.”

For Galsworthy, the run-up to the Great War was a time of depression and paralysis.  “These war-clouds are monstrous,” he wrote in his diary about the impending conflict.  “If Europe is involved in an Austro-Servian [sic] quarrel, one will cease to believe in anything.”  The following days were no better as he observed “war-clouds still black” and “the suddenness of this horror…appalling.”  He recorded in his diary shortly thereafter:  “I wish to Heaven I could work.”  Such thoughts about the impending war combined with his marriage (which he viewed as “paralyzing”), with his poor physical health (which involved a “game shoulder” and “short-sightedness”) and with his age of forty-seven (which disqualified him from enlistment) —to shape Galsworthy’s perception of himself as disabled.

As he suggested in his diary, Galsworthy eventually overcame his sense of disability, and thus made sense of the war he hated while supporting the nation he loved, by embracing his very ability to write as “the most substantial thing” he could do to support “relief funds.”  For the duration of the war and through the middle of 1919, therefore, he composed essays of fiction and non-fiction that were not merely descriptive of that damage and efforts to repair it but also semi-autobiographical as they revealed the thoughts of an observer who was set apart from, but nonetheless wished to participate in, the events of the day through his creativity and sense of purpose.

One of Galsworthy’s most provocative essays was “The Sacred Work,” which he wrote during the spring of 1918 upon request of the Ministry of Pensions for the official proceedings of the second annual inter-allied conference and exhibition on the after-care of disabled men.  This piece addressed how soldiers who were “broken in war” were a vital portion of the public deserving of health in the postwar era.  The other segment of the public—namely those civilian noncombatants who remained at home, including Galsworthy himself—had before them not only the task of maintaining the public’s health writ large but especially “the sacred work” of providing health to the “stricken heroes of the war [who] in every township and village of our countries…will dwell for the next half-century.”  Galsworthy continued:

The figure of Youth must go one-footed, one-armed, blind of an eye, lesioned and stunned, on the home where it once danced.  Half of a generation can never again step into the sunlight of full health and the priceless freedom of unharmed limbs.  So comes the sacred work…Niggardliness and delay in restoring all of life that can be given back is sin against the human spirit, a smear on the face of honour…The ‘scared work’ begins…in special hospitals, orthopaedic, paraplegic, neurasthenic, [where] we shall give back  functional ability, solidity or nerve or lung.  The flesh torn away, the lost sight, the broken ear-drum, the destroyed nerve,...it is true, we cannot give back; but we shall so re-create and fortify the rest of him that he shall leave hospital ready for a new career.  Then we shall teach him how to tread the road of it, so that he fits again into the national life, becomes once more a workman with pride in his work, a stake in the country, and the consciousness that, handicapped though he be, he runs the race level with his fellows, and is by that, so much the better man than they.

The reprinting of this essay in America during the final months of the war reflected what was by then Galsworthy’s international reputation as an advocate for disabled soldiers.  The piece appeared as “So Comes the Sacred Work” in the American Journal of Care for Cripples, as “The stricken” in The Living Age, and as “Those Whom the War Has Broken” in the New York Times publication Current History.  It also appeared in the Oakland Tribune of Oakland, California, as a touchstone for highlighting the contemporary investigation by the education committee of the House of Representatives of the Federal Board for Vocational Education of disabled soldiers.  That body was accused of “neglect, incompetency, [and] indifference” in executing its mission.  Significantly, while the editors of the Oakland Tribune used “The Sacred Work” to help their readers remember those who were disabled in the war, Galsworthy soon thereafter excluded this piece, among many others related to disabled soldiers, from the multi-volume edition of his collected works, in his own effort to forget the conflict and its destruction.

When the Great War ended in November 1918, Galsworthy did not publicly address the subject of disabled soldiers again until 1921, when The Disabled Society published his nine-paragraph foreword to its Handbook for the Limbless.  This piece was merely an echo of his previous compositions on the same subject, but it was nonetheless a significant coda to his wartime writing as a means to self-enablement.  Combined with his collected works, Galsworthy’s foreword to the Handbook represented a fundamental step in the direction of his forgetting the human damage wrought by the war even while he recalled the broken soldiers who returned home.  Suggesting the very therapeutic value of his words and the Handbook itself—both for himself and for the nation—Galsworthy wrote that “…It will do a lot of us, who still have all our limbs, good to read this Handbook, and be reminded of what so many thousands are now up against, and of how sturdily they are withstanding discouragement.”

The fact that this short piece was apparently Galsworthy’s final public statement relating to disabled soldiers should not be surprising.  Like so many individuals of the “generation of 1914” who survived the Great War, Galsworthy had wanted to forget the trauma of the conflict and the rhetoric of the contemporary culture of care-giving surrounding disabled soldiers, including the promises of artificial limbs, curative workshops, and propaganda that envisioned a positive future for all disabled veterans.  Put simply, Galsworthy was through with the war.  As correctly prophetic as his wartime compositions were, the empty rhetoric of heroism and false promises of the day prevailed.  Galsworthy’s ability to write—the only true ability he possessed in the face of being “disabled” by medicine and by society—undoubtedly enabled his participation in what he believed to be the most pressing concern of the day.  In the end, however, he judged his efforts merely as a drop in the flood of propaganda which overtook the nation from the earliest days of the conflict.  As Galsworthy assessed the situation in 1919:

…I have often thought during these past years, what an ironical eye Providence must have been turning on National Propaganda—on all the disingenuous breath which has been issued to order, and all those miles of patriotic writings dutifully produced in each country, to prove to other countries that they are its inferiors!  A very little wind will blow those ephemeral sheets into the limbo of thin air.  Already they are decomposing, soon they will be dust…

So disillusioned was Galsworthy with the war—and so disenchanted was he with his wartime advocacy—that from 1921 until his death in 1933 he never again took up the subject of disabled soldiers in any original way.  The war, Galsworthy observed privately in a letter to a friend shortly before his death, “killed a terrible lot of—I don’t know what to call it—self-importance, faith, idealism, in me…”

The experiences and words of John Galsworthy offer a lesson in how quickly wars and veterans can be forgotten.  On this Veterans Day, this chapter in the history of the Great War should inspire not only to remember disabled veterans of subsequent and current wars but also to invest for the long term in ‘the sacred work’ of renewing their health and enabling their full participation in society.

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Maarja Krusten - 11/11/2010

Most interesting, thank you for writing this. As do many others, I know Galsworthy through The Forsyte Saga, which I read over 30 yers ago after watching the televised BBC series on PBS. I appreciate your sharing the details of Galsworthy's reactions to World War I.