“The Health of Two Publics: John Galsworthy, Disabled Veterans, and 'The Sacred Work' of Rehabilitation”

Jeffrey S. Reznick

John Galsworthy (1867-1933) – recipient of the 1932 Nobel Prize for literature and co-founder of PEN, the international organization of writers – was one of the most prolific and best-selling authors of the twentieth century. While his name has become synonymous with The Forsyte Saga, an epic sequence of novels and “interludes” about the upper-middle-class Forsyte family, his reputation in this context belies another he achieved during World War I, which was his philanthropic support for and his compositions about rehabilitation programs for British and American soldiers disabled in the “war to end all wars.”

Since Galsworthy saw himself as being disabled, and since he framed his wartime advocacy for disabled soldiers largely in public health terms, his wartime humanitarianism constitutes an ideal case study for exploring intersections of and tensions between disability and public health. This work, therefore, uncovers a heretofore silent voice in the history of disability, one whose words are valuable for scholars and disability-rights advocates alike.1

1914: ‘The nightmare of it…I wish to Heaven I could work’

For Galsworthy the run-up to the Great War was a time of depression and paralysis. “‘These war-clouds are monstrous,’” he wrote about the impending conflict. ‘If Europe is involved in an Austro-Servian [sic] quarrel, one will cease to believe in anything.’”2 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.”3 Such thoughts about the impending war combined with his marriage (which he viewed as ‘paralysing’), his ill physical health (which involved a ‘game shoulder’ and ‘short-sightedness’) and his age of forty-seven (which, according to the military establishment, combined with his ill health to disqualify him from enlistment) – to shape Galsworthy’s perception of himself as disabled.4

Galsworthy eventually overcame his sense of disability by embracing his very ability to write as well as directing that ability to raise financial support and generally advocate for the war disabled. As the first wave of soldiers began to return home in early 1915, he began to realize the full human damage wrought by the conflict. Galsworthy responded by composing a variety of essays – official and personal, non-fiction and 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.

Among the two dozen such works composed and published by Galsworthy between early 1915 and the middle of 1919 was “For the maimed – now!,” which he wrote for The Morning Post following his visit to London’s Lord Roberts Memorial Workshops. Combining autobiography and prophesy in language that addressed the health of two publics – namely the disabled heroes of the nation and the nation writ large – Galsworthy observed here that:

…when in the streets there passes some poor fellow who a few months ago was stronger and more active then one’s self, had before him many more years of enjoyment and utility, almost a boy, perhaps, and who is now to be forever like a bird with a broken wing or a ship with a mast gone and half of its sails trailed down, there comes on one a sensation like no other that this war produces…

The future ahead, Galsworthy continued, was clear:

…The armless, legless, the blinded, the paralysed [sic] – all live on into the green years when the wilderness will bloom again and flowers grow where this storm once withered the face of the earth; on into the calm years when men will look back and rub their eyes. It is this which comes down on the heart of him who sees the maimed men go by – this sensation of watching, from far on in the future when there shall not be another trace left of that hurricane, thousands upon thousands stricken out of full life into a half-existence, thousands upon thousands who, but for the merest chance, might be ourselves…5

More explicit, however, was Galsworthy’s essay “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.6 Here, Galsworthy addresses the fact that soldiers who were “broken in war” were themselves 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, as Galsworthy called it, “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.”7

Conclusion: Forgetting and remembering

When the 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. While this piece that was merely an echo of his previous compositions on the same subject, it was a significant coda to his wartime writing as a means to self-enablement. It represented for Galsworthy a fundamental step in the direction of forgetting the human damage wrought by the war while remembering those broken soldiers that its battles 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.”8

 The fact that this short piece was apparently Galsworthy’s final public statement relating to disabled soldiers should not be surprising even in light of his wartime record of humanitarianism directed toward them and his even longer dedication to humanitarian issues. Like so many individuals of his generation who survived the war as non-combatants, and especially those who were too old to fight, Galsworthy had wanted – at least by the final year of the war – to forget the trauma of the period and the rhetoric of the culture of caregiving surrounding disabled soldiers, including the promises of artificial limbs, curative workshops, and propaganda that envisioned the best future for 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. His 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 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 he 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…9

So disillusioned was Galsworthy with the war – and so interested was he to forget his contributions to it and to the health of the most important segment of the public who served the nation – that down to his death in 1933 he never again took up the subject of disabled soldiers in any original way. The war, Galsworthy observed shortly before his death, “killed a terrible lot of – I don’t know what to call it – self-importance, faith, idealism, in me…”10

Galsworthy’s compositions described here are as much about him as an individual with disabilities as they are about disabled soldiers of the ‘war to end all wars’. Their rediscovery and reinterpretation ninety years after the conflict can pave the way to understanding how the categories of disability and public health are integral to historical writing about and present-day advocacy for disabled veterans.


· Jeffrey S. Reznick, PhD, is an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Modern History of the University of Birmingham, a member of Birmingham’s Centre for First World War Studies and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. Contact: Department of Modern History, University of Birmingham, Arts Building, Edgbaston, Birmingham, B15 2TT United Kingdom, (202) 904-7353, j.reznick@bham.ac.uk.



1This disability/public health-focused work in progress is based in part on the author’s forthcoming book John Galsworthy and Disabled Soldiers of the Great War, with an Illustrated Selection of His Writings (Manchester University Press, 2009).

2 Galsworthy, diary entry of 29 July 1914, as quoted in Harold Vincent Marrot, The Life and Letters of John Galsworthy (A Bibliography of the Works of John Galsworthy (London: William Heinemann, 1935) and (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936), 395. Hereafter the latter is cited.

3 Galsworthy, diary entry of 2 August 1914, as quoted in Marrot, Life and Letters, pp. 395.

4 Galsworthy, diary entry of ca. 13 December 1914, as quoted in Marrot, Life and Letters, 411-412.

5 John Galsworthy, “For the maimed – now!”, The Morning Post, May 26, 1916. The same text, re-titled ‘Those whom the war has broken’, appeared again in the August 1916 issue of Current History, a monthly periodical published in America by The New York Times.

6 Those proceedings appeared shortly after the event, ‘The sacred work’ serving as the foreword to the HMSO publication. During the final months of the war the essay appeared in America as ‘So comes the sacred work’ in the American journal of care for cripples, and as ‘The stricken’ in The living age. After the war, Galsworthy included the original version of ‘The sacred work’ in Another sheaf. On 20 June 1920, a substantially abbreviated version of the piece, including chiefly the first paragraph, appeared in America 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 the rehabilitation 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 this landmark composition to help their readers remember those who were disabled in the war, Galsworthy soon thereafter excluded this piece, among his many others related to disabled soldiers, from the Manaton edition of his collected works, in his own effort to forget the conflict and the human damage it wrought.

7 John Galsworthy, foreward, in Great Britain, Ministry of Pensions, The inter-allied conference on the after-care of disabled men. Second annual meeting, held in London, May 20 to 25, 1918. Reports presented to the conference (London: HMSO, 1918), p. 13.

8 John Galsworthy, “Foreword,” in G. Howson (ed.) Handbook for the limbless (London: The Disabled Society, 1921), vi.

9 Galsworthy, Addresses in America 1919 (London: William Heinemann, 1919), ‘At the Lowell centenary’, 8-9.

10 Galsworthy to Gilbert Murray, 6 March 1932, as quoted in Marrot, Life and letters, 803.