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 BBC.co.uk 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 BBC.co.uk 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 BBC.co.uk 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 BBC.co.uk 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: https://bbc.in/36SmD1J.

THE HEART STONE IS CURRENTLY ON NETGALLEY:

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The Heart Stone

Excerpt:

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

Arthur:

“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.”

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Pals Regiments – An Experiment Never Repeated #WW1

 As members of the human race we feel safest with those we know and trust. And we choose who to trust; friends and those members of our families with whom we can empathise. Those who think like us, who, on the whole, believe in the things we believe in, who share group values.

Even if those ideals are instigated by someone else, we can sometimes be persuaded to take them onboard. To consider them as our own core principles. And, as such we cooperate; we work together towards a shared goal.

It was this theory; that man has evolved to cooperate within a trusted group and so is able to achieve more than any one person could ever accomplish alone, that in nineteen fourteen led to the formation of the Pals Battalions.

When the First World War broke out in the August, Britain was the only major power not to begin with a mass conscripted army. It quickly became clear that the small professional British Army was not large enough for such a comprehensive conflict. Despite the general belief that the war would be over by Christmas, the newly appointed Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, was unconvinced. He approached Asquith’s Government to allow conscription, but this was considered politically dangerous for the Liberals. However, Parliament did sanction strengthening the Army through volunteering.  And so, on the sixth of August, Kitchener set about recruiting.

General Henry Rawlinson, serving as Director of Recruiting at the War Office on the outbreak of war, believed that men would be more willing to join up if they could serve with men they already knew, they would enlist if they could serve alongside their friends, relatives and, local football teams, church members, workmates.

pals-batallion

Image courtesy of A Date with History

Building on General Rawlinson’s idea Lord Derby, Conservative member of the House of Lords, organised one of the most successful recruitment campaigns to Kitchener’s Army.

In  a speech to the men of Liverpool , he said: “This should be a battalion of pals, a battalion in which friends from the same office will fight shoulder to shoulder for the honour of Britain and the credit of Liverpool.”

Pals battalions were formed on patriotic fervour and community spirit, spurred on by local magistrates and officials on behalf of Lord Kitchener. Thousands answered the call. Cities, driven by civic pride, competed to sign up new recruits until there were too many for the military to train. So they were drilled in their own towns by those same magistrates and officials, until the army could take over.

December 1915, London: A recruiting campaign attacts recruits to Southwark  Town Hall. Read more: http://www.mademan.com/ga… | World war one, World war  i, World war
Image courtesy of Pinterest

It was easier to sign on recruits from areas where mining or mass industry were the main employment. It appears that, to many men, the army gave them a great opportunity to escape dire poverty: to have regular pay, food, clothing, sometimes better living conditions in barracks compared with their homes. Most had never been abroad. The war offered the opportunity to go to France and Belgium with their friends and get paid for it.

Hull and the First World War | World war one, World war, War
Image courtesy of Pinterest
World War One: Manchester Pals battalion details to go online - Manchester  Evening News

Members of Manchester pals battalions – image courtesy of Manchester Evening news

Once they had been formed, most Pals Battalions spent 1914 and 1915 training in Britain. But plans were being made for a major offensive on the Somme that was intended to relieve the pressure on the French and break through German lines to force an early victory. It would be the first major battle for most volunteers.

For many it would also be their last. The first day of the Somme was disastrous. Most of these units sustained heavy casualties.

Certainly the Pals Battalions increased the number of volunteers. However, poor military tactics by the higher ranks meant that there was a heavy price to pay by the men in those battalions. Neighbourhoods and families were devastated.

 With the introduction of conscription in 1916, the close-knit nature of the Pals battalions was never to be replicated.

Quote from one Pal: ‘Two years in the making. Ten minutes in the destroying. That was our history.‘.

Image courtesy of The Manchester Evening News

 THE HEART STONE IS CURRENTLY ON NETGALLEY:

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The Heart Stone

Excerpt:

In The Heart Stone, Jessie’s young love, Arthur, joins the local Pals Brigade, even though, at sixteen, he is too young.

They held onto one another for a while.

‘I have to go, sweetheart.’ Arthur pulled away from her. ‘Best I go first, eh?’

Jessie nodded, not trusting herself to speak. She didn’t watch him walk away...

Chapter Eighteen September 20th 1914

She didn’t go to watch him leave the town with the other two hundred men and boys either. Through her opened bedroom window, she listened to the uneven thud of their undisciplined marching between the changing tunes of the brass band and the singing. How she resented the singing. And the cheering.

Sitting on her bed, her handkerchief sodden between her fingers, she tried to shut down the images she’d conjured up in her mind of what Arthur might face. She had no idea, but she’d read in the newspapers about the atrocities the Germans were committing in Belgium; killing randomly, deliberate cruelty. What kind of men were they?

Despite Amos Morgan’s constant calls to go down to serve in the shop, she ignored him. She wouldn’t face the excitement, the proud chatter of the customer. She didn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t share it.

Eventually the crowds moved away from in front of the shop. She heard the noise from below quieten to a low murmur and thought bitterly that Amos Morgan would be worried about making less money now so many men had gone. Gone to a foreign land to be killed in a war that her own country shouldn’t have become involved in. It didn’t make sense to her.

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