BBC News

The untold stories of deaf people in WW1

By William Mager
Series producer, See Hear

image copyrightAction on Hearing Loss

This year has seen many commemorations of the centenary of World War One. It was one of history's deadliest conflicts, claiming millions of lives. Stories featuring deaf people of that period have remained largely hidden but have been pulled together by See Hear ahead of Remembrance Sunday.

When the war broke out, sentries were deployed across the country and security was tightened. But many deaf people were unaware of the new rules ... and paid for it with their lives.

"Deaf people walking along the road were told to stop by sentries. But when they continued to walk, they were shot," says historian Norma McGilp, who is herself deaf and has been researching a book about the experiences of deaf people in World War One.

"There are a number of stories about deaf people being randomly shot while walking home from work, cycling or generally getting on with life," McGilp tells See Hear.

Reports like these 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 guidelines warning its readers not to go out walking alone or near railway lines, stations and public buildings, and advised they be accompanied by a hearing person where possible.

Though some deaf people became unforeseen casualties of home front security, evidence has also emerged about how many were involved in the country's war effort.

In London, a deaf volunteer battalion was reported to have been trained in drill and tunnel digging and a number of deaf people were employed in factories as munitions workers - making and testing shells, fuses, and manufacturing everything from tools through to wheels.

image copyrightFred Morffew family
image captionFrederick Morffew was discharged from the army because of his deafness

Despite strict rules barring people with hearing impairment from serving as soldiers, a number of deaf people made it to the battlefield.

Harry Ward joined the Royal Munster Fusiliers and did his basic training in Ireland, at the Curragh Camp.

Private Gomer Jones was profoundly deaf since early infancy and had no sight in his right eye. According to press reports of the time, Jones was the best marksman in his company and a skilled soldier, indistinguishable from his fellow fighters.

Frederick Morffew, a deaf road worker from Petersham, was determined to make it to the battlefield. Surprisingly he managed to pass a medical and joined the army in May 1915. Records show that he served for around six weeks before being discharged on account of his deafness. Undeterred, he joined the labour corps and was posted to France.

Until recently, the family had no idea of the lengths he had gone to in order to support the troops, his granddaughter Eileen Allen told See Hear.

"You were a hero, and I salute you, because I think you must have been some special sort of person. I'm glad that you were in my family," she said of her granddad Fred.

Whilst over 700,000 British soldiers lost their lives in WW1, it's estimated nearly two million were left disabled. According to Peter Brown, a deaf historian at City Lit, an adult education college in London, approximately 30,000 of these soldiers were deafened. Around the country, 31 centres were set up to teach them lip-reading and re-integrate them into society.

Our knowledge of deaf people in the Great War is limited to newspapers, deaf periodicals, military records and photographs. Film cameras were not widely used, so there is no recorded history, signed or spoken, from deaf people themselves.

Deaf filmmaker Julian Peedle-Calloo re-imagines the unique situations deaf people faced in the era with his new 30-minute drama Battle Lines, made for the deaf online TV channel BSLZone. A period drama set in a small village during wartime, it follows a deaf man who desperately wants to fight but is instead treated as an outcast by his neighbours.

"Many people are under the impression that deaf men were fortunate to not serve in World War One due to their deafness and so had a lucky escape," Peedle-Calloo says. "I wanted to show that they were far from lucky.

"Deaf men wanted to be able to serve their King and country and do their duty as part of the war effort and they were denied this opportunity. They were rejected by the army and rejected from their communities for their perceived cowardice - a double punishment," he says.

Find out more

image copyrightGetty Images

Life at home during World War One

See Hear's programme about World War One airs on 5 November on BBC TWO at 10:30. Battle Lines can be seen on television and online from 10 November at BSLZone.

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