Clare is an historian, writer, lecturer and consultant in the cultural history of the First and Second World Wars. Her debut book Captives of War. British Prisoners of War in Europe in the Second World War was published in 2017, and she holds the position of Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck, University of London. You can follow her at @warhist
I doubt there are many historians who have escaped that withering question: why does the past matter? We all have our reasons for believing history is important – if not, we’d be in the wrong profession – but one I’ve never really found to be convincing is that knowledge of the past helps us to avoid repeating the mistakes of our predecessors. It would be so neat and gratifying if I could pinpoint a specific change that has come from my research, a change in policy that made a tangible improvement to people’s lives, but I’ve always been sceptical. Are there really scenarios in the past, a past that sits in contexts so different from today, that can be directly transferred to the present-era? Even if there are, do people today, the ones who make the decisions, have the requisite knowledge of history, not to mention humility, to learn from it?
Well, it turns out I was wrong to be so cynical. Well, almost wrong; almost enough for me to be persuaded that there are direct lessons to be learnt and implemented.
As I discuss in my recent book Captives of War, after the Second World War, a series of Civil Resettlement Units (CRUs) were established in Britain. They were highly innovative, unprecedented in scale, quite remarkable for what they achieved and, as I recently discovered, remain highly relevant to contemporary efforts to re-integrate service personnel into society after their retirement from the forces.
Psychological effects of captivity
When the world was still very much in the throes of the Second World War, the War Office in Britain became increasingly concerned about the psychological effects of captivity. More than 190,000 men were taken prisoner while serving in the armed forces of the United Kingdom in the wars against Germany and Japan.
There was a number of reasons for this interest in wartime imprisonment. Distinguished soldiers, who had been prisoners of war (POWs) from the Great War, wrote to the War Office recalling how they had never fully recovered psychologically. Surveys and research carried out on escapees and repatriates supported the idea that ex-POWs experienced ‘some degree of abnormality’ following their release. Escaped ex-prisoners wrote articles in the press about the mental challenges they were now facing. One of them, Major Philip Newman, published a piece in the British Medical Journal about how, upon their release, ex-POWs experienced the psychological equivalent of ‘the bends’ or ‘decompression sickness’. Just as the deep-sea diver’s body exhibits a variety of symptoms if insufficient time is taken to release it from high underwater pressure, so an ex-POW, having gone through the intensity of captive life, would exhibit symptoms of restlessness, irritability and even dishonesty after returning home.
Such activity was enough to convince the government something needed to be done. In March 1945, the Secretary of State for War approved the creation of twenty CRUs across the country.
Civil Resettlement Units
CRUs were residential units designed to provide a ‘half-way house to Civvy Street’; a bridge in the transition from army to civilian life.
They were established close to the homes of repatriates, as determined by census figures. Where possible, large country houses were used, so the CRU would contrast as much as possible with POW camps. They included the Jacobean stately home Hatfield House in Hertfordshire and the mansion house of Kneller Hall, in the London Borough of Richmond. Each unit accommodated 240 ex-POWs at any one time. Generally, men stayed for between four and five weeks.
The units offered ex-POWs a range of practical services, including vocational guidance and access to the labour exchange, with the proximity of the unit to a man’s home allowing him to remain close to possible jobs. Units were also designed to eliminate social or emotional problems. Group discussions were held to encourage men to disclose their feelings without embarrassment in the hope they could talk about their problems more openly at home. Men could be referred or self-referred to a psychiatrist. There was a trained psychiatric social worker who dealt with domestic difficulties. Repatriates could return home each weekend and their wives and civilian friends were invited to attend social gatherings that took place in the unit. In this way, CRUs did not just reintroduce the ex-POW into civilian life but also helped families and communities reintegrate returned service personnel.
Attendance at a CRU was purely voluntary. This was essential given the purpose of the units was to re-accustom ex-POWs to living as civilian members of a free society.
Among army POWs who had been held in Europe, at least 19,000 chose to attend one, as well as 4,500 of those captured in the Asia-Pacific region. The RAF established four of its own resettlement centres, which received more than one in four of some 13,000 returned airmen held captive by either the Germans or Japanese.
A positive outlook
Evaluation studies of CRUs indicate they achieved outstanding results. They ensured the experience of captivity was not a barrier to ex-POWs integrating back into civilian society. But, they did more than this. They seem to have helped ex-POWs to improve themselves, along with society, more broadly.
POWs believed captivity had promoted positive psychological development in them. They had become more mature, wise, considerate and self-reliant. CRUs acknowledged and sanctioned this personal growth. One small investigation took ex-POWs who attended a CRU and those who had not and compared them to a control group of 40 families who represented the civilian norm. Ex-POWs who had attended CRUs showed ‘more adaptability and co-operativeness’ than was normal for their civilian neighbours. In contrast to adhering to conventional roles that could impede cooperation between a husband and wife, former POWs were said to have discovered how to get the most out of relationships and had broken the bonds of conventional restriction. In the investigators’ own words, there was a ‘continuum . . . in terms of the degree of flexibility and participation in these relationships’ from those had been to a CRU through to the control group, to former POWs who had not attended a unit.
The Balkans War
Fast forward now to 2018 when I published an article about CRUs in The Psychologist magazine.One of the readers was Andy Tait. Today, Andy runs a crisis management company. In the 1990s, he headed up a programme for the reintegration of UK police personnel following their secondment to the United Nations International Police Task Force in the former war-torn countries of Bosnia, Kosovo and Croatia.
Some elements of that programme were very similar to the CRU concept. It offered the men a two to three day ‘decompression’ period (Andy’s choice of word was the same as that of Major Philip Newman). Attendees were also encouraged to discuss their feelings. ‘Structured story telling’, a form of psychotherapy first recognised in the mid-1980s, was found to offer significant therapeutic value.
In other respects, knowledge of the CRU programme would have significantly aided Andy in his task. He had to argue heavily to allow for the police to be taken to Bramshill House for the decompression period. Bramshill House, a Grade 1 listed Jacobean mansion, was the police equivalent of Sandhurst, and, since the 1960s, had been the principal police staff training establishment in England and Wales. Set within 300 acres of Hampshire countryside, it was the ideal venue for debriefing repatriated police personnel – not at all dissimilar to the large country houses used as CRUs. It was chosen for almost the same reason too – so that the location would contrast as much as possible to their accommodation in the Balkans. To have accommodated these officers in a budget hotel near Heathrow Airport would have compromised the programme before it even took off.
There was no follow up to this rehabilitation programme, but Andy is aware of how many continued to be troubled by their experience in the Balkans. This was not because of the lack of psychological support available to them but because there was very little official acknowledgement of their experiences, and even less willingness to embrace their learning, and insight, in a way that would positively contribute to both the police service and society generally.
Andy would have loved to have known about the CRUs. He felt that they would have provided him with a really useful blueprint and an evidence base. According to him, we still have much to learn as to how we can validate experiences of warfare, both so that service personnel can incorporate those experiences into their lives and move forward, and so that we, as a society, can fully integrate them. I completely agree.
Image: German prisoner of war camp, Stalag 383, Hohenfels, Bavaria, Germany, and New Zealand prisoners of war. Photographed by R H Blanchard, via wikimedia commons.