Trigger warning – this article contains discussion of suicide.
In 15th April 1939’s weekend edition of the Essex Newsman, you’ll an incredibly tragic story. It’s not front-page news, but beyond Winston Churchills promise to aid Greece and Romania against Nazi invasion, there is a none the less important story; that of Edith Hann. A 43-year-old mother of two who on Good Friday had curled up with her husband on the sofa to listen to that evenings BBC News wireless transmission. As she heard of the ever-growing threat of Nazi invasion and that Britain must become more involved in this international crisis, she turned to her husband and said ‘That means war’. The next morning Edith was dead.
Edith had been scared of what war would mean for her family. What it would mean for her sons, then 9 and 16. She’d lived through World War One, she knew that a second war could mean her oldest son being conscripted; that he might never come home. That the threat of bombing might mean he wouldn’t even have a home to come back to – or parents to help him get through. Edith was terrified. She couldn’t face another war. So, she took her life. At her inquest, the coroner, one Dr P.B Skeels, underlined the effect the wireless news had on Edith. Saying ‘The news is not always happily expressed on the wireless. Of course, we want to know the facts, but people with a nervous disposition are likely to be tremendously effected.’ This was backed up by a Daily Mail on 13th April 1939. Edith was one of three people whose suicides were directly linked back to that same BBC news broadcast on Good Friday 1939.
When we think of the outbreak of The Second World War, we don’t think suicide. Maybe that’s because suicide was illegal in the UK until 1961. Maybe it’s because these people’s stories have just got lost in the melee of ‘THERE’S A WAR!’. Or maybe, it’s because, until quite recently, we didn’t feel comfortable talking about mental health. The answer is probably a mix of all of these reasons, but almost certainly thanks to a pretty heavy dollop of the latter. Still between 1938’s Munich crisis and the official outbreak of war in Britain in 1939, there were many instances of people, just like Edith, committing suicide due to the threat of war. They are the lost dead. The casualties of war we just don’t want to think about.
The First World War changed Britain -obviously. Pretty much every city, town and village now had a war memorial. A great wave of death had swept the nation and nobody was left unmarked. This was made even worse by the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, which claimed at least 200,000 lives in Britain, an estimated 45% of which were under 35. Between 1914-1918 it was not a good time to be a young person – the odds of your survival weren’t exactly stellar. Which is why today we know this generation as ‘the lost generation.’
If you’ve ever lost someone you’ve loved than you’ll know how tough it is to recover. To rebuild your life and find a way to smile again. Now imagine that personal pain and spread it throughout the country – one big shared unimaginable loss. That was the aftermath of the First World War. Sadly, there just weren’t enough resources, or knowledge in mental health to help everyone. So, veterans were put as first priority (although admittedly the help they got was beyond poor-buts that’s a story for another day) For everyone else – the shattered and traumatised civilian’s – well for the most part, you just had to carry on. It’s perhaps why we see a post war spike in spiritualism, religion and even ‘pilgrimages’ to visit First World War battle sites. It’s also why in the 1930’s there’s a boom in ‘emotional control’ with women’s newspaper columns and magazines in particular advising their readers on how to ‘manage’ their feelings.
But beyond all this feeling management and hope in spiritualism, there was another thing to hold on to. The best kind of silver lining. Because, at the time this wasn’t called ‘The First World War’; it was ‘The Great War’. A war so great and tragic that it could never happen again. So of course, the trauma you experienced during The Great War wasn’t likely to repeat itself. Right? Right?!?
After the absolute failure of 30th September 1938’s Munich Pact, it became apparent that Britain joining another international war was a definite possibility. This wasn’t a new fact for the people of Britain – who earlier in the year had already been advised to be fitted with gas masks. Not only was another war on the cards, but an attack was thought so likely that everyone was now issued with a gas mask. It’s a terrifying thought, even more so if you’re already traumatised by the horrors of war.
This is where we start to see the first forgotten casualties of Britain’s involvement in The Second World War. The University of Sheffield’s Dr Julie Gottlieb is carrying out an ongoing research project on suicides related to The Munich Crisis, as part of a wider project researching suicides during times of crisis. In 2018 at the time of the research’s publishing, Dr Gottlieb told the New Statesman that she had uncovered at least 110 suicides directly relating to The Munich Crisis.
These include Roger ‘Tom’ Northcutt, a 36-year horticultural whizz who’d been assembling gas masks when he suddenly told his fellow volunteers he was quickly nipping home. Expect he never made it home and shortly afterwards a search party found his body. Then there’s, William Neatham Rumbell a 27-year-old sales clerk, who immediately went to pick up his gas mask after hearing Hitlers speech on 26th September 1938, where the Nazi leader threatened war with Czechoslovakia. Shortly after William returned home with his mask, he reportedly uttered the same last words as Edith Hann: ‘That means war’ – his body was later discovered in his room.
In the grand scheme of things 110 suicides might seem like a drop in the ocean. But these deaths are just scratching the surface. They are the deaths where there is a clear and direct link back to the impending outbreak of war. That’s just one aspect that makes broader research into this is tricky. In addition many deaths that were probably suicides, were recorded as ‘accidental deaths’ and/or just weren’t reported on. This adds another fun spanner in the works, because newspaper archives are one of the primary sources for tracking this – although some coroner inquest reports still exist, not all of them do, because coroners are only required to keep records from this era for so long. However, despite all of these added hurdles, there is clear anecdotal evidence that there may have been an impact to overall mental health in the run up to Britain entering The Second World War.
For an example let’s go back to where this article began and focus in on those reported in the local confines of The Essex Newsman. Looking at the last two weeks in September 1938 – when fears of Britain entering the war were at a high – The Newsman reports on seven suicides within the Essex area – a far greater number than usual. This is in addition to one woman being charged with attempted suicide and an inquest ruling accidental death in the case of one man, although the coroner’s verdict includes that the deceased stepped in front of a train and upon hearing the trains whistle, he deliberately ‘jumped forward’ towards the oncoming train.
Again, this is of course incredibly anecdotal evidence on my part. And of course it’s important to understand that a sudden impending war wasn’t likely to be the sole cause that led to a suicide or a suicide attempt – rather a contributing factor. The straw that broke the camels back if you will. But this glimpse into just two weeks in one county in England really illustrates what we’re looking at as a far wider reaching trend; and it’s one that is still being analysed and studied. Now unfortunately although amazing research is being done in this area, it’s not yet fully formed. However, when it is – this area of historic research could be a complete game changer. The study of these deaths won’t just provide us with a window into the lives of people history likes to forget, but it will help us better understand mental health.
Think about it. We know that looming economic, political and social crisis’s see an uptick in people attempting to take their lives. We’re currently living in an epidemic that has seen this exact effect. And although understanding of mass mental health is better than it ever was, it’s still not 100% there. By studying these past incidences, we can get a far better understanding of their cause, symptoms and ultimately, what can be done to help. Now I’m not going to lie, as a suicide survivor and a researcher of mental health history, I totally have skin in this game (so please do expect me to bang on about this in the coming weeks and months!) This has been a really basic overview of the issue at hand, but I hope one that makes you want to read more into this (and if that is the case, reading list is at the bottom). These stories are never fun to read about, but they are important and expanding our knowledge of this area of the past can only make the future we build even better.
If you’re currently experiencing suicidal thoughts, please contact your GP – they really will help you. You can also call the Samaritans for 24/7 free one to one support, on 116 123.
- M. Thomson, Psychological Subjects: Identity, Culture and Health in Twentieth-Century Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
- Essex Newsman archive (through British Newspaper Archive)
- 13th April 1939 Daily Mail (available through British Library reading rooms or Daily Mail Online Archive
- Suicide rates before, during and after the world wars, European Psychology, 1994
- Dying for the nation: Death, grief and bereavement in Second World War Britain (Cultural History of Modern War), Lucky Noakes, Manchester Press, 2020
- Suicide, Society and Crisis, Wellcome Trust funded project
*Just for clarity – I’ve chosen to omit mention of methods of suicide from this article as much as possible. If you want to find them for each individual then you can (most are cited in the newspaper sources above).