Shell Shock – Legacy of the Trenches #WW1

Image courtesy of the Mirror

The First World War ended with the deaths of a generation of young men. But the devastation of the  conflict didn’t end with that last blast of a howitzer. Thousands of soldiers went home still re-living their horrific experiences of the battlefields for many years. Their lives were damaged by shell shock, a condition many had suffered from during their military service. And, throughout Britain, doctors were baffled by this unknown illness. Soldiers were returning from the trenches paralysed, blind, deaf. Some were unable to speak. Many had bouts of dizziness, hysteria, anxiety, Families reported that their returned husbands, sons, brothers, were often unable to sleep. And, if they did, had horrendous nightmares that resulted in depression, refusal to eat, erratic behaviour.  Many so-called lunatic asylums and private mental institutions were assigned as hospitals for mental diseases and war neurosis.

Many men felt shame; often they  were unable to return to military duty and on their return home, they were viewed as being emotionally weak or cowards. Bewildered by the changes seen in shell shocked soldiers, people had little sympathy; there was little understanding for them. Even worse,  many families felt only the disgrace and humiliation that one of their own had been charged with desertion and executed by a firing squad of their fellow soldiers. It would be many decades before they would be given posthumous pardons.

Soldier being bombarded
Image courtesy of Inside Out Extra

In the first years of the war, shell shock was assumed to be a physical injury to the nervous system, a result of soldiers facing heavy bombardment from exploding shells. Victims were at the mercy of the armed forces’ medical officers. Determined to ‘cure’ the soldier, the treatments given by them were cruel and humiliating: extreme physical instruction, shaming and severe discipline in front of their fellow soldiers, solitary confinement, electric shock treatment.

By the second year of the war almost half of the casualties in fighting regions were victims of the condition and military hospitals were unable to cope; the unexpected numbers of soldiers suffering from the condition meant that there was a drastic shortage of beds. And medical staff discovered that many men suffered the symptoms of shell shock without having even been in the front lines. More so, it was noticed that many officers, desperate to hide their emotions and to set an example for their men, became psychotic, suffering from some of the worst symptoms of shell shock..

But it wasn’t until 1917 that the condition of shell shock was identified by a Medical Officer called Charles Myers as combat stress, today also known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

So, the thousands of soldiers who went home still re-living their horrific experiences of the battlefields had a name for the condition they were living with. Many had lost their ability to walk or, speak. Some regressed to a baby-like state. It seemed there was no expectation of recovery.

But then one man, an army major and general physician, Arthur Hurst, despite much cynicism and opposition established a hospital at Seale Hayne, Newton Abbott, Devon. (now part of Plymouth University). The men who arrived there, ostensibly destroyed by their horrendous experiences of war were given hope.

Community spirit: On the wards at Seale Hayne hospital men were encouraged to write and to produce a magazine with a gossip column called Ward Whispers
Image courtesy of the Daily Mail

Hurst’s innovative method had never been witnessed before. Psychiatrists who, after the disorder was identified towards the end of the war, were adamant that a process of mental rehabilitation was needed; that the shell-shocked soldier was trying to cope with harrowing experiences by repressing any memories. They thought that the symptoms revealed involuntary detachment from events lived through and the man could only be cured by the traditional method of reviving memories, a process that could require a number of psychiatric therapy sessions.

Arthur Hurst
Image courtesy of Inside Out Extra

As a general physician, Arthur Hurst believed that there was a simpler treatment;  that humane understanding and sympathetic persuasion was the way to into the ex-soldiers’ awareness of the new life now around them.  He thought that during a terrifying bombardment, a soldier might experience tremor, be unable to move or speak. So, sometimes, the power of suggestion could cause the symptoms to survive once that intense reaction had passed. The cure, as far as he was concerned was the re-education of the mind and his methods  were what was needed to resolve the lingering symptoms of the trauma endured.

He used hypnosis and patience, giving them work to do on the land around Seale Hayne; a revolutionary occupational therapy. The tranquillity of the Devon countryside, the encouragement given to the men was thought to be a place where the men could get over their hysteria. They were urged to use inventive and resourceful ways to work.

Soldiers working in field
Image courtesy of Inside Out Extra

Then, In a ground-breaking move, he ordered the reconstruction of the battlefields of Flanders on Dartmoor even encouraged his patients to shoot. to help the men relive and come to terms with their experiences.

Hurst also believed it important for the men to express themselves creatively and persuaded some to write and publish a magazine with a gossip column called Ward Whispers.

Nurses and patients
Image courtesy of Inside Out Extra

He made the only film in existence about how shell shock victims were treated in Britain. This gives an insight into his treatments. Though upsetting initially to watch, they also reveal the dramatic recovery Arthur Hurst’s methods produced. It was indeed pioneering and gives a mark of respect to the men who survived the terrors of the First World War. Arthur Hurst proved his methods were truly effective but I have been unable to find any studies of what happened to any of the men who had therapy at Seale Hayne. However I did find this fascinating programme on Radio Four’s Homefront:


The Heart Stone


Slowly, without a word, Arthur stood up and allowed himself to be led down the field…


“I wipe my face with my sleeve, relieved I haven’t blurted it all out.  I know I never will now; it’s my secret, my shame.

I’m hoping the shooting has stopped. Even if it hasn’t, I’ll be ready for it; it won’t throw me back into the darkness again.

Of course, as soon as I close my eyes, I’m back there.”


judith barrow

The Circumstantial Enemy: An astounding, based-on-true-events WW2 thriller by John R.Bell #RBRT #TuesdayBookBlog




I received this book from the author as member of Rosie Amber’s review team #RBRT in return for a fair and honest review.

I gave The Circumstantial Enemy 4* out of 5*

Book Description;

On the wrong side of war, there is more than one enemy…

When Croatia becomes a Nazi puppet state in 1941, carefree young pilot Tony Babic finds himself forcibly aligned with Hitler’s Luftwaffe. Unbeknownst to Tony, his sweetheart Katarina and best friend Goran have taken the side of the opposing communist partisans. The threesome are soon to discover that love and friendship will not circumvent this war’s ideals.

Downed by the Allies in the Adriatic Sea, Tony survives a harrowing convalescence in deplorable Italian hospitals and North African detention stockades. His next destination is Camp Graham in Illinois, one of four hundred prisoner of war camps on American soil.

But with the demise of the Third Reich, repatriation presents a new challenge. What kind of life awaits Tony under communist rule? Will he be persecuted as an enemy of the state for taking the side of Hitler? And then there is Katarina; in letters she confesses her love, but not her deceit… Does her heart still belong to him?

Based on a true story, John Richard Bell’s The Circumstantial Enemy is an energetic journey to freedom through minefields of hatred, betrayal, lust and revenge. Rich in incident with interludes of rollicking humour, it’s a story about the strength of the human spirit, and the power of friendship, love and forgiveness.

My Review:

The Circumstantial Enemy drew me in from the first page; Bell has a writing style that has great depth, tells a story that has so many sub-plots, mixes facts with fiction, yet is easy to read

This book is based on real events that happened during World War II and it is obvious the author has also researched extensively. The plot reads authentically with many twists and unexpected events. Set between 1941-1952 , It’s a cross-genre story of history, politics, war  and romance: a story that exposes the devastation and horror of war, the reactions of human beings to the stress and trauma of enforced separation from family and friends, of enduring love against all the odds. The pace is swift and encompasses the difficult period when Yugoslavia was divided into Serbia and Croatia,  moving to Italy, the stockades in North African,  American prisoner of war camps and on to post war Europe.

Yet all is not doom and gloom; there are touches of humour here and there, showing the resilience of the human condition.

The characters  are well portrayed with authentic and individualistic dialogue, particularly that of the protagonist,  Tony Babic, shown in so many layers through both his actions and internal  dialogue as the story progresses. As the story moved forward I felt, as a reader, that I almost knew what his responses would be to everything he faced. This is a strong protagonist, embodied by self-respect, honour, courage; a man who faces life with stubborn perseverance even in his darkest moments. And the minor characters, being well drawn and believable, give excellent support within the plot.

The descriptions of each of the settings are extremely well written and give a great sense of place.

If I had any reservations about this debut novel it would be that sometimes, just sometimes, a point is belaboured, slowing the action down. But, as I say, it is a small irritation compared with the enjoyment I had reading The Circumstantial Enemy.

 Striking cover as well!

I would recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys historical fiction with wars as the background and a touch of romance and  I look forward to reading John R Bell’s next novel.

Links to buy:

About the Author:


John Richard Bell


John Richard Bell was born in Chigwell, UK and now resides in Vancouver, Canada.

Before becoming an author of business books and historical fiction, John Bell was a CEO, global strategy consultant, and a director of several private, public, and not-for-profit organizations. A prolific blogger, John’s musings on strategy, leadership, and branding have appeared in various journals such as Fortune, Forbes and

John’s novel, The Circumstantial Enemy, chronicles the trials and capers of Tony Babic, a young pilot who finds himself forcibly aligned with Hitler’s Luftwaffe in 1941. Unbeknownst to Tony, his sweetheart Katarina and best friend Goran have taken the side of the opposing communist partisans. The threesome soon discover that love and friendship can not circumvent this ideals of this war. Like many of the adventure novels of Wilbur Smith and Bryce Courtenay, The Circumstantial Enemy is an energetic journey to freedom through minefields of hatred, betrayal, lust, and revenge. Rich in incident and rollicking humor, it’s a story about the strength of the human spirit, and the power of friendship, love, and forgiveness.

John’s business book, ‘Do Less Better – The Power of Strategic Sacrifice in a Complex World’, was released by Palgrave Macmillan USA in 2015. This book helps leaders recognize the complexity within their businesses and suggests how they can simplify and streamline through specialization and sacrifice. For leaders, innovators, and entrepreneurs who need help embracing the practices that foster agility, foresight, and resilience, ‘Do Less Better’ provides a tool-kit of road-tested strategies.


The Eunuch’s Voice

Shakespeare, Poet, Writer, Author


Another of Maggie Himsworth’s fascinating slants on one of Shakespeare’s minor characters. Here’s what she says about this month’s post.

Antony and Cleopatra is one of my favourite plays. Mardian, the head eunuch, doesn’t make many appearances, but this is what I think he might have said if he’d been given a voice.

Drama, Comedy And Tragedy, Theater

I don’t understand it. Here I am, stuck in this tomb, with three dead women, the queen herself and her two ladies in waiting. They’ve cheated Caesar of his prize at least. Slippery as a snake that one, he’s not a man who keeps his promises. His father was a better man, or so I’ve heard.

My great queen, dead.  By her own hand, well, the serpent’s teeth actually, but you know what I mean. She couldn’t wait to get to Antony, jealous that Iras would get there first and get the first kiss.

Those three used to torment me, but I was fond of them.

‘I take no pleasure in anything you’ve got  Mardian’ she used to say, and they’d all laugh. Give them an extra inch and they wouldn’t stick it on their husband’s nose – how rude. But they always talked like that, women together, just as coarse as a group of men.

I always knew though that love between her and Antony would be their downfall. I say love, it might just as easily have been lust, what do I know, or perhaps it was a mixture of both. When she turned her ships and he followed, it was the end for Enobarbus. There was never anyone so loyal to Antony and for him to go over to Caesar’s camp, well, it killed him. I have to say though, Antony never held it against him, was magnanimous, but of course that made it worse.

Antony knew he had lost his honour, and that was more precious to him than anything, even his gypsy queen. He was a broken man. I don’t think she understood that. She was good at playing both sides, she knew how to get the best deal for herself, but for Antony, something was right or wrong. Maybe that’s the difference between men and women, not that I would know as I’m neither. Women have been used to being, what shall I say, adaptable? She had to live by her wits and her wiles, it was all she had.

Octavia I feel sorry for. Used by her brother and used by her husband. She must have known that Antony’s interest lay in Egypt, not with her. But then, she had no choice. It’s only men who have choices, women and eunuchs must do what they can.

I often used to wonder if I could have been an Antony. Great soldier, great general, great  leader of men. Great lover of course, but that part goes way beyond my imagination. I like to think that I could have been some of those things at least, instead of being stuck in this place where I fit neither with men nor with women.

How we laughed though, when the messenger arrived to tell her that Antony was married. We didn’t laugh to her face of course, that would have been suicide, but we all thought she was going to kill him she was so mad with jealousy.

‘Tell me about Octavia’s voice, is she tall, does she have a round face’.

I don’t know whether he told her the truth or not, but he managed to save his own skin.

But that’s all gone now. Enobarbus dead,  dead, my queen, all died by their own hand. What a waste. Maybe it’s easier to be who I am. I’ll never know the extremes of passion but perhaps that’s a good thing. I think I’ve had quite enough excitement in my life without even looking for it. I have no one now to serve, no master or mistress. Perhaps, just for once, I could do what I want to do. Go back to my family if I can find them. Live a quiet life.

They’re over there now, Caesar and his men. He wanted to parade her through the streets of Rome so that everyone would say what a great man he is. I’m pleased he didn’t get the chance. She outwitted him after all. I wonder if I could leave without them noticing?

©  Maggie Himsworth 2016

Wednesday’s #Honno Author Interview – today with Alison Layland

In the second of my Wednesday interviews with fellow Honno authors, I’m pleased to be talking to Alison Layland about her début novel.



Alison is a freelance translator and writer. She grew up in West Yorkshire, and after moving around the country quite a bit, now lives and works in the lovely Welsh village of Llangynog, in the Berwyn mountains, where she lives with her husband and cat; her two grown-up children having flown the nest in recent years. She translates from German, French and Welsh (which she learned when she moved to Wales) into English. When not reading, writing or working she loves walking, travelling and oral storytelling –(so far as an audience member rather than a teller, though she says she’s working on it! )– and dabbling in various crafts.

So let’s start, Alison, by you telling us about your début novel.


alison book

Someone Else’s Conflict is about Jay, a rootless storyteller and odd-job man, who uses his stories and chosen way of life to try and escape from a dark past – his involvement in the Croatian War of Independence, and actions that he regrets. He meets Marilyn, an aspiring artist, and commits to helping her. As friendship grows between them, he begins to wonder whether she can also help him, and whether the time has come to think about settling down. When displaced teenager Vinko enters their lives, he is forced to confront his past in more ways than one.


What experience do you want for your readers?

First and foremost, I hope my readers will get involved in the story and the characters, and enjoy living in the world of my novel for a while. I like stories where things aren’t black and white, and I hope the grey areas raise issues for readers to think about. What would it be like to be in such a situation? What would I have done? Was he or she right to act as they did?

The “historical” back story (assuming that 20 years ago can be called historical) is presented in quite an impressionistic way in the novel, and it may inspire some people to find out more about the intricacies of the conflict following the break-up of Yugoslavia, which happened on our doorstep and has resonances with what is going on in the world today.

Are any of your character traits or settings based on real life?

All the characters are entirely fictional, although, as I’m sure is the case with all authors, they are coloured by hints of my own experiences, watching and wondering.

My wider locations are real, while immediate settings are invented. In particular, I wanted to make sure that the Croatian village of Paševina, the events that happened there, and the renegade character of Lek, are entirely fictional – not related to any real events of which I am aware, but plausible within the wider history of the 1990s conflicts. The main setting of the novel is in the Yorkshire Dales, an area where I’ve spent a lot of time over the years, and it made sense to have the Dales town of Holdwick fictional, too, but grounded in reality, to achieve a balance.

When did you decide to become a writer and why?

Ever since I can remember I’ve told myself stories, from intense, snapshot-like scenes to long, rambling epics. It wasn’t until about 15 years ago that I started to write fiction, as an indirect result of learning Welsh. Our course tutor was the poet Cyril Jones, and when the course came to an end, a few of us continued with him in the form of creative writing classes. Strangely, I found that writing in another language helped me to lose my self-consciousness and start to write things down for others to read. I eventually progressed to writing in my native language, English, though still enjoy writing in Welsh from time to time. Now I can’t imagine feeling those inhibitions (in any language!) – on the contrary, writing is part of who I am.

Which comes to you first, the characters or the story?

The characters with hints of their stories, which I try and tame into a reasonable framework and set of ideas before launching into writing, and develop as I go along. My second draft (and the next, and…) is when it really takes shape.

What are you currently working on?

My next novel is at the initial “taming and shaping” stage (see above), but it’s getting there. I’ve recently worked on a wonderful translation of a series of poetic reflections on Armenian culture and the experiences of survivors of the genocide in 1915 []  It’s been lovely to work on – beautiful writing, and a fascinating insight into a country and an aspect of history about which I previously knew very little.

Do you have any writing advice you would like to share with aspiring authors?

In short, read a lot and write a lot. Don’t be afraid of getting it all down in a first draft, then rewriting and editing to shape your final work. If you want to be published you have to develop a thick skin and not be afraid of rejection – it happens to most, if not all, of us. I found the best antidote to be putting your energies into working on something else.

Courses are also really helpful for learning and refining your craft – personally, I have really enjoyed a number of courses at Tŷ Newydd.*

It also helps immensely to have creative support; I am lucky to have be in regular contact with two talented novelists and authors, Martine Bailey and Elaine Walker. We offer feedback on each other’s works in progress and enjoy talking about and discussing all aspects of writing, from inspiration through to publication and beyond, as well as visiting local places of interest, exhibitions, etc. that inspire us. This friendship is really important to me, as is the wonderful welcome and support I have been given by my publisher, Honno, and the “family” of other Honno authors.

What inspires you in your writing?

I get inspiration from all around me – snippets of news, overheard conversations, pictures, travel, things I read.

Music is hugely important to me. Although I rarely listen to music while actually writing, I have playlists for each work-in-progress of music that inspires me – it may not be a whole song or piece, but often snippets of lyrics (which may be interpreted by me in an idiosyncratic way that I’m sure the songwriter never intended!) that suggest an aspect of a story, atmosphere or a character trait.

I love oral storytelling, and try to see as much as I can, as well as volunteering as a steward every year at the Festival at the Edge storytelling festival in Much Wenlock. Telling and writing a story are two very different techniques (which I have always realised, but which was forcefully brought home to me recently when I had a go at telling one of Jay’s stories out loud to a small audience), but I find listening to stories and watching storytellers’ performances to be really inspiring.

Describe yourself in three words.

Introvert, fun-loving – paradox.

Do you ever wish that you had an entirely uncreative job?

No – I left a career as a Chartered Surveyor to become a translator, and then a writer, and would definitely not want to go back. My commercial translation work can be quite prosaic, but when I’m working on something creative it can be every bit as enjoyable as my own writing, and I’m constantly trying to develop this aspect. I also love the freedom of working from home as a freelancer, without having to go out to an office environment every day.

Do you research your novels?

Yes, I like to try and get the details right as much as I can – though I try and ensure that my research informs my story without taking it over or being excessively obvious. My research for Someone Else’s Conflict included extensive reading about the 1990s conflicts in former Yugoslavia and the wider background, both factual books and fiction from the region. I have always been fascinated by the Balkans and wanted to know more, so have found the research, and my travels around the region, to be absorbing and fascinating. Although the aspects that I present in the novel are the dark side, that’s deceptive as in fact I’ve fallen in love with this part of the world. Given my love of languages, part of my research has also included attempting to learn Croatian, which I’m still doggedly pursuing.


Someone Else’s Conflict is published by Honno Press:

alison book



Lovereading link:

Or direct from Honno:

My website:

Twitter: @AlisonLayland   

* Tŷ Newydd:].  med full colour honno logo