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Literature's response to the shock of the First World War

BY Charles Glass

30th Nov 2023 Books

5 min read

Literature's response to the shock of the First World War
Author and journalist Charles Glass explores the impact of the First World War on soldiers' mental health through the lens of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon's friendship and poetry
All the armies in the Great War had a word for it: the Germans called it “Kriegsneurose”; the French “la confusion mentale de la guerre”; the British “neurasthenia” and, when Dr. Charles Samuel Myers introduced the soldiers’ slang into medical discourse in 1915, “shell shock.” Twenty-five years later, it was “battle fatigue.” By the end of the 20th century, it became post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
"All the armies in the Great War had a word for it"
In December 1914, a mere five months into “the war to end war,” Britain’s armed forces lost ten per cent of all frontline officers and four per cent of enlisted men, the “other ranks,” to “nervous and mental shock.” An editorial that month in the British medical journal The Lancet lamented “the frequency with which hysteria, traumatic and otherwise, is showing itself.”
A year later, the same publication noted that “nearly one-third of all admissions into medical wards [were] for neurasthenia”—21,747 officers and 490,673 enlisted personnel. Dr Frederick Walker Mott, director of London’s Central Pathological Laboratory, told the Medical Society of London in early 1916, “The employment of high explosives combined with trench warfare has produced a new epoch in military medical science.”

Unprecedented warfare

Industrial-era weaponry deployed on a mass scale from August 1914 to November 1918 exacted a greater toll in dead and wounded than in any previous war. For the first time in history, millions of men faced high-velocity bullets, artillery with previously unimaginable explosive power, modern mortar shells, aerial bombardment, poison gas, and flamethrowers designed to burn them alive. British casualties soared on August 26, 1914—a bare three weeks into the war—when German artillery ravaged the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) at Le Cateau in northeast France.
Wounded soldiers in the First World War. Photograph taken by Official War Photographer at an Australian Advanced Dressing Station near Ypres in 1917
In October, the Battle of Ypres produced so many cases of mental shock that the War Office dispatched a leading neurologist, Dr William Aldren Turner of London’s National Hospital for the Paralysed and Epileptic, to France to discover the causes. Examining otherwise healthy men afflicted by deaf-mutism, blindness, stammering, palsies, spasms, paraplegia, acute insomnia, and melancholia, he concluded, “In many instances he [the soldier] may persevere with his work until a severe psychical shock— such as seeing one of his friends killed beside him, severe shelling, an upsetting experience, or bad news from home—unsteadies him, and precipitates a definite attack of neurasthenia, requiring rest and treatment at home.”
"Doctors recorded an escalating proportion of mental breakdowns alongside the usual statistics of killed, wounded, and missing"
As the war progressed, doctors recorded an escalating proportion of mental breakdowns alongside the usual statistics of killed, wounded, and missing. The percentage increased as the war froze along a static cordon of opposing trenches from the English Channel south more than four hundred miles to the border of neutral Switzerland. Along this deadly frontier, troops of both sides endured the relentless hammering of devastating artillery in a dark underground world from which the only escape was injury or death.
Debate among military physicians and between doctors and senior officers raged over how to deal with the unblooded wounded. Dr Myers criticised the military for regarding shell-shocked soldiers as “either insane and destined for the madhouse or responsible and should be shot.” The question persisted throughout the war: should men who broke down on the field of battle be disciplined or receive medical attention?

A mental health crisis

By war’s end, firing squads had executed some, practitioners had administered punishing electric shocks to others, and psychiatrists offered Freudian psychoanalysis to a lucky few. The treatments’ purpose was to thrust shattered boys and men back into the violent conditions that had caused their breakdowns, troubling physicians who had to weigh duty to patients against military necessity.
The problem of soldiers’ mental health became a crisis in the summer of 1916, when British general Sir Douglas Haig launched an all-out assault to break the German line in northern France’s Somme Valley. Preparatory, uncamouflaged massing of forces and supplies, together with a weeklong artillery barrage to reduce enemy defences, alerted the Germans to the impending onslaught. At 7:27am on July 1, British artillery subsided and an eerie silence prevailed. Two minutes later, a mountain of earth rocketed into the sky from a spot behind the German lines called the Hawthorn Redoubt, where British sappers detonated a 40,000-pound underground charge.
A painting of No Man's Land, First World War
That was the signal for thousands of men laden with 66-pound backpacks to climb over the parapets of the British trenches and march into No Man’s Land. German defenders, who had sheltered deep under the surface during the barrage, emerged to fire machine guns, artillery, and mortars at their attackers. The Germans pitied the boys falling before their bullets, calling them Kannonenfutter, cannon fodder.
It was not combat so much as slaughter. Between dawn and dusk, nearly twenty thousand British soldiers died, while another forty thousand suffered wounds or went missing in action—the highest one-day loss in British military history before or since. Thousands turned up in Casualty Clearing Stations (CCS) without visible wounds but unable to speak, hear, walk, or stand still. Some, fearing terrifying nightmares, dared not sleep.

The poetry of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen

Many broken men recorded their experiences in diaries, letters, illustrations, and poems. Two young officers treated for shell shock, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, rank among the finest poets of the war. Yet much of their verse would not have been written but for their psychotherapy.
Chance brought the two poets together at Scotland’s Craiglockhart War Hospital, and chance assigned each to a psychiatrist suited to his needs. The analysts acted as midwives to their works by interpreting their nightmares, clarifying their thoughts, and encouraging them in their creations.
"Many broken men recorded their experiences in diaries, letters, illustrations, and poems"
Owen, who in another context might have been left to languish in trauma, benefited from intensive therapy under Dr Arthur Brock. Brock’s interest in science, sociology, folklore, Greek mythology, and nature studies accorded with Owen’s. Brock expanded Owen’s horizons and gave him the self-confidence to write and restore his mental balance.
Sassoon, in contrast, enjoyed intellectual engagement with his psychiatrist, Dr William Halse Rivers, who did not trouble him with the outside activities that Brock imposed on Owen. Had the two young officers been sent to different hospitals, they would not have met, and the poems they wrote would have been vastly different from the masterpieces the world knows.
Soldier's dont go mad cover
Soldiers Don't Go Mad by Charles Glass (Bedford Square Publishers, £22) is available now
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