What passing bells for those who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, -
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells.
Wilfred Owen, from Anthem for Doomed Youth
British soldiers, The Somme, 1916
World War 1 was one of the deadliest wars in history. Approximately 16 million soldiers from over a dozen countries were killed in the field and many more were injured. Soldiers in World War 1 faced horrors that were, in many ways, unique to that war, including mustard gas, using men as cannon fodder in the wars infamous trenches, and execution for soldiers who broke under the strains, which were immense. The sister of one man who was traumatized during the war could still remember when she was 95, how distressing his symptoms had been, waking the entire household up on many nights. "It was absolutely terrifying when he woke up screaming, screaming and screaming," she remembered. (See the Liddle Collection for more). The article below describes the brutal conditions soldiers fought under.
Shell shock was the name given to combat trauma in the First World War. This was a name that stuck through World War 2 and it wasn't until the Vietnam War, when veterans played an assertive role in their own treatment, that the diagnosis of PTSD was applied to the condition of combat trauma. Initially, officers of the Allied Armies, particularly the British Army which I'll focus on here, disciplined, shamed and even executed soldiers who developed shell shock. However, soon the problem grew to such proportions that execution was no longer an option. In five months in 1916, for example, 16,000 cases of shell shock were diagnosed in the British Army, during and following the Battle of the Somme. Some speculate, that one of the reasons there were so many cases was because of the conditions soldiers faced in the trenches: trapped for weeks or months at a time, never knowing when they would come under attack or be struck by shells.
- Soldiers with shell shock were first sent to clearing stations near the front
- After two weeks, if soldiers didn't recover, they were sent home to England
- Treated at a number of hospitals designated for this purpose
- Treatments varied from shaming, use of electric shock, isolation and even withholding food
- More humane techniques were developed by people such as W.H.R. Rivers, William Brown, and others
W.H. R. Rivers (below)
New approaches to treatment
Opportunities to share traumatic memories
Emphasis on finding meaning in these experiences
Use of cognitive therapy
Partnership between therapist and patient
Today, scholars who specialize in trauma and PTSD, give credit to Rivers and others for pioneering treatment for PTSD. Rivers, as we will see in my next post, treated poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Trauma scholar, Judith Herman, writes that "River's treatment of Sassoon was intended to to demonstrate the superiority of humane, enlightened treatment over the more punitive traditionalist approach" (Herman 1997:22). For more on these new approaches to treating shell shock go to, The treatment of shell-shock by Peter Howorth. Rivers work is commemorated in the novel Regeneration by Pat Barker. Go to W.H.R. Rivers for a moving tribute to the man and his work.
(Next posting, more on Rivers, Sassoon and poet Wilfred Owen.)