When William Rivers returned to St Johns in 1919, people noticed the change in him. The acceptance shown him by his soldier patients made him a “far happier man”, Charles Myers recorded and described how his former tutor was now joining clubs, yachting and even dining out. The college provided with the new position of ‘Praelector of Natural Science Studies,’ with instruction to make of that whatever he wished. Colleague L E Shore noted that upon this announcement, Rivers “paced his room for several minutes, full of delight” and responded by declaring, “I have finished my serious work now, and I shall just let myself go”
Characteristically, ‘letting himself go’ did not mean neglecting his appearance work or really even resting apart from the odd visit to his family or friends’. He made acquaintance with as many students as possible ran ‘At Homes’ which involved meetings and talks held in his quarters on Sunday mornings. Forming a discussion group called the Socratics; he invited a number of well-known friends such as Sassoon, H G Wells and Arnold Bennett to address its members.
His war-work had not finished along with the conflict in 1918: he published books “Conflict and Dream” and “Instinct and the Unconscious” recounting his findings as concerned various areas of related psychology and its treatment. Several former patients had kept in contact and he still mentored them, and had hopes to some day try out his techniques upon civilians having easily realised that many psychological conditions encountered in everyday life showed similarity to those exhibited by the soldiers, albeit from a different cause.
Awards and new appointments still came in. Rivers was (a little strangely) given the title President of the English Folk-Lore Society in 1920, followed by (more expectedly) the same rank in the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1921. Honorary degrees from universities of Manchester, St. Andrews and Cambridge were added to his list of attainments
1922 brought what could be called renewed stresses. Conditions in the country after the war were not what the ex-servicemen had been led to expect. This was no ‘Country Fit For Heroes’*; there were shortages, mass unemployment and an all-round lack of improvement. As in the past, injured men who had served were often reduced to homelessness, discarded by a government who had cajoled or conscripted many of them into fighting. Little help was offered the average widow, with or without children and the population was understandably beginning to object. The Labour party implied that they could remedy much of this strife if they were voted into power in the years’ election and, somewhere along the line, Rivers was persuaded to stand as a candidate for the London University seat and accepted nomination with the words “because the times are so ominous, the outlook for our own country and the world so black, that if others think I can be of service in political life, I cannot refuse.” Some of his campaign speeches can be found in the posthumous ‘Psychology and Politics’ published in 1923
Before his campaign could begin, however, another duty took priority. In response to questions over the sheer number of shell-shock casualties seen during the war, and the government’s apparent reluctance to both concede that the illness was genuine and compensate those affected along similar rates to the physically injured, authorities called for an investigation. A board to produce the Report of the War Office Committee of Enquiry Into “Shell-shock” was convened and experts such as Rivers, along with a few (some argue too few) military witnesses were asked to attend**. If the government hoped that the condition was to be proved false, and protesters wrong, they were disappointed. By the end of the enquiry in May, the latter were triumphant and the former liable to provide many more pensions and compensatory payments.***
June dawned sunny and bright, bringing with it the Whitsun celebrations that cheered the spirits of towns and villages around the country. On the evening of the Thursday 3rd, Rivers dismissed the college staff attending him and settled down to study an application for a scholarship to study Anthropology in the next Easter term. No one, perhaps not even the doctor himself, realised he was seriously ill. By the time he was found early the next morning, he was in agony, suffering from a strangulated hernia, and was rushed to hospital for an emergency operation. Sadly, the surgeons were unable to save him and he died just before nine am in Evelyn Convalescent Nursing Home, Cambridge. Beside him was a document bearing his signature. It was the application, approved whilst he was dying. The man who had already done so much for others had summoned his formidable resources for one final act of compassion.
* A promise made by David Lloyd George, Prime Minister during the Great War 1914-18
** For the entire report and a much more thorough examination of proceedings, please see specialist texts, for example http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Report_of_the_War_Office_Committee_of_En.html?id=O5_XdP-VSZsC&redir_esc=y
*** It can be said that around 8 or 9 % of Officers are acknowledged to have suffered the condition during the Great War, and about 4% of ‘Other Ranks’: this equates to at least 200,000 hospital admissions and 20,000 army discharges. According to author Lyn MacDonald, in ‘The Roses of No Man’s Land”, in 1938, 27,000 men were still being paid war disablement pension for the condition plus 3,200 were still in ‘mental asylums’ having still never recovered their memory or similar. It is irrelevant but sad to note that some men listed on the memorials could the missing could have actually been the men in these homes who had not recalled their own identity since whatever stage of the War they became so ill.
It must also be taken into account that the above figures only represent the number of men ill enough for the Government not only to recognise their condition but that it was severe enough in each case to cause the man problems with gaining to maintaining employment – Others were not usually given financial help. In addition, the figure, of course does not count the men whose conditions went unreported or undiagnosed, or who died during the conflict but had some degree of ‘Shell-Shock’
Other official statistics for men still receiving pensions in 1938 include–
Men with :
One or both legs missing
” ” ” ” arms “-
” ” ” more limbs withered or disabled due to War service
Severe head injury
Bronchitis or T.B. due to gas
Incapacitation by severe frostbite
Heart disease due to War service
Crippled by rheumatism due to War service
Incapacitated by other due to War service
Epileptic due to War service