Wednesday, June 14, 2017

World War Wednesdays: Deafness and the First World War

Deaf munitions workers in London, England, Action on Hearing Loss
     According to a chapter called "Military Service and Training for Deaf People" by the Canadian Deaf Culture Center, "many people erroneously believe that deafness prevents a person from becoming involved in military training and service." In Canada, there are numerous records of the wartime service of deaf people, and sources from Great Britain have also surfaced in recent years. I thought it would be interesting to spotlight those individuals this week, and hope it adds a new dimension to your understanding of wartime recruitment and service as it did mine.

     When the First World War broke out, sentries were deployed across England amidst a tightening of security. For many deaf people, however, the new rules were not made clear, and they often paid for that with their lives. Historian Norma McGilp, who is herself deaf, reflects that "Deaf people walking along the road were told to stop by sentries. But when they continued to walk, they were shot... There are a number of stories about deaf people being randomly shot while walking home from work, cycling, or generally getting on with life." Reports describing these instances peppered the pages of local and national newspapers at the start of the war, but by September 1914, the British Deaf Times had published a set of warnings to its readers not to go out walking alone or near railway lines, stations, and public buildings, and advised them to be accompanied by a hearing person whenever possible.

     In addition to these challenges on the home front, deaf men who wanted to serve in the military faced strict recruitment rules and rigorous medical testing. Despite this, many in both Britain and Canada made it to the battlefields and served their countries proudly. The BBC writes that a deaf volunteer battalion was formed in London, England, training personnel in drill and tunnel digging. A number of deaf people were also employed in factories as munitions workers, making and testing shells, fuses, and manufacturing everything from tools to wheels.

    Howard Joshua Lloyd of Brantford, Ontario successfully enlisted in the army and served in France during the war. Called "Howsie" by his friends, his hearing was damaged by a bout of whooping cough when he was two years old. As a teenager, he quit school to work and support his deaf parents. The first three times he applied, Lloyd was unsuccessful in enlisting. He was finally accepted in the summer of 1916 when he signed up to become an infantry man in the 215th Overseas Battalion, and was then transferred to the 125th Battalion in England. In February 1917, he was again transferred to the 38th Battalion in France, where he served for three months in the trenches of the Arras Sector. The following is an excerpt from an unedited account of Lloyd's experiences:
     His deafness was too well known in Brantford for him to pass his physical education. On one occasion when he tried to enlist there, the doctor was chewing gum. Howard, watching lips and straining ears in his effort to pass the examination, finally asked the doctor to remove his gum so he could understand what was being said. It came out, again, then that he had defective hearing and he was hastily shown the door.
  Howard trained in Canada for six months and then in England for one year. He spent one and one-half years in France, in the war zone, four months of which were in the front-line trenches. On such forays he was loaded with hand-bombs or grenades and could carry no other weapon. He and his fellow bombers were each defended by a bayonet-man, who kept a pace behind the bombers to protect them from rear attack. They would wait for darkness and then stealthily cross No-Man's Land and enter the German trenches. Once there, the bombers disposed of their lethal weapons where they would do the utmost damage- tossing them into huts, gun positions and supply dumps- as speedily as possible before hurrying back to their own lines.
  Howard was wounded only once. A German egg-bomb sent a piece of shell into the back of his neck. These bombs were treated with some kind of poison which set up an infection. While the wound itself was not serious, the infection caused by the poison put him in a front-line hospital for two weeks. 

     Ultimately, over 700,000 British soldiers lost their lives in the Great War and an estimated nearly two million were left disabled. According to Peter Browna deaf historian at City Lit, an adult education college in London, England, approximately 30,000 of those soldiers were deafened. As a result, 31 centers were established across England to teach them lip-reading and assist them with adjusting back to civilian life. 
     Research credits to "The untold stories of deaf people in WW1" by William Mager for the BBC  and "Military Service and Training for Deaf People" by the Canadian Deaf Culture Center.
     Thanks for reading,
Delany (@DLeitchHistory on Twitter)

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