‘I opened up the window and in flew Enza..: How Spanish ‘flu added to Great War heartache

1007_flu-3090440_166x138In Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health, I examine a number of different causes of the trauma experienced by British society as a whole during and after the conflict. I also acknowledge that we should not attribute 21st century responses to those who lived 100 years ago. However, there are some that are, surely, timeless and there are moments in history that shake the very foundations of everything we believe in. Without getting too cliché ridden, there is only so much an individual can take, and in Shell Shocked Britain I consider extending this to the nation as a whole.

So take yourself back to September 2001 and the shocking attacks on the Twin Towers in New York. After the horrors of that day, and the aftermath, do you remember how worried everyone was that an anthrax attack was imminent? That the postal service could become the means by which death was spread across the US, and Britain (I was refused some strong antibiotics for  cellulitis on the basis that they must be stockpiled for just such an eventuality)?  The fear of the ‘other’ became overwhelming, leading nations into war and beginning a chain of events we have yet to recover from. Would we, some wondered, ever feel safe again?

Imagine that after 9/11 an epidemic strikes, affecting the world in the winter of 2001; it is a disease so virulent that hundreds of thousands are dead within weeks, including many who survived the horrors in New York. It is the stuff of disaster movies. But when considering the aftermath of the Great War what is often overlooked is a similar, real, event; another equally devastating but natural disaster that was about to scythe down those that had survived the worst years of the fighting. Influenza.

A protein from the virus, recently identified in 2004

A protein from the virus, recently identified in 2004

When the virus was first noted the symptoms were benign, no worse than the common cold. Soldiers in the trenches complained of sore throats, headaches and lack of appetite. Highly infectious in the cramped, insanitary conditions, no-one seemed to suffer the symptoms beyond three or four days and military doctors were relatively unconcerned. Similar outbreaks had occurred in 1916 and 1917, when illness spread amongst gas-weakened troops and may have been caused by contact with wild and domesticated birds. However, the virus quickly mutated and, mistakenly reported as having originated in Spain, ‘Spanish’ influenza became a killer. By the end of 1919, between 50 million and 100 million deaths could be attributed to the virus worldwide.

The pattern of spread in Britain can be traced from May 1918 with the first cases in Glasgow, moving south to London by June. In July, 700 were reported dead from the virus in one week. Schools all over the country closed and church attendances fell drastically as people tried to avoid infection. Over the summer, the number of deaths declined, but by the autumn the disease had returned, this time causing the deaths of 17,000 in London alone. Cinemas, theatres and any public buildings where large numbers might congregate were closed down.

100 years ago, the public were ignorant of the ways in which infection was spread and even as the war drew to a close were inclined to believe the conspiracy theorists who blamed the Germans.

Spanish fluThere was no cure; like the common cold it simply had to run its course. Hospitals became overcrowded and unable to deal with the number patients admitted. In Aldershot those most desperate cases were left under shelter in the open air to ensure there was room on the wards for those more likely to recover. Many families stocked up on the suggested home remedies, such as quinine, and crowd control was necessary at dispensaries. The  population was advised to wear small surgical masks, ensure good hygiene and sleep in well-ventilated rooms, all sensible advice.

Whilst researching Shell Shocked Britain I came across other supposed ‘cures’ that caused practical problems for those resorting to them. In August 1918, Joseph Jackson, a 31-year-old soldier who had fought at Mons and returned home later with shell shock, had been recommended to drink beer for the influenza he had contracted. This resulted in a six-month prison sentence for kicking a policeman when he was arrested for drunkenness.

Contrary to the rather ‘romantic’ scenes depicted in Downton Abbey, when the lovely Lavinia succumbed, watching someone suffer could be shocking, especially if they were one of the 20 per cent of patients who developed septicaemia or pneumonia, for which there were no modern antibiotic treatments. Some developed a lavender tinge to their skin, the sign of ‘heliotrope cyanosis’. Its onset was alarmingly fast and signalled lack of oxygen and imminent death. A fit, young person could be well first thing in the morning and dead by tea-time. Whole families were affected, children orphaned and left in the care of grandparents as mothers and fathers died.

The families watched as the lungs and major organs of loved ones became filled with a thick jelly, which caused suffocation; bleeding from the ears and haemorrhage from the mucous membranes made it a terrible death. A feeling of intense depression came over those infected and, even patients who recovered were left with a lasting feeling of dejection and hopelessness. In the book I detail some of the reports I uncovered of suicides successful and unsuccessful – by those affected.

Communities large and small could be free of the infection one day and prostrate the next. Troop movements and conditions on the Front contributed to the spread, with the autumn outbreak coinciding with the Armistice Day celebrations. The circumstances required to spread infection were maximised as strangers kissed and hugged in the crowded streets. This time wealth and status was no protection and the age group hardest hit were those who were actively engaged in war work: 20 to 30-year-olds. It is still not clearly understood why this otherwise fit age group was most affected. It might have been because they benefited neither from exposure and possible immunity from previous ‘flu outbreaks or from the improved nutrition available to school children through free school meals. Whatever the reason, it increased the pressure on already fragile temperaments and the Hackney Gazette did little to assuage fears, printing an article in January 1919 stating that ‘this adds a new danger to life. One is never safe in this world.’

Famous names were lost to the virus. Sir Hubert Parry, composer and musician; economist Max Weber; William Leefe-Robinson VC, the first man in Britain to shoot down a Zeppelin airship. But Kaiser Wilhelm contracted flu and survived.

By early 1919 the numbers infected by the virus were gradually falling and the worst was over, although reported cases continued well into the summer of that year. Experts still dispute how many died from this strain of influenza across the world, but estimates range between 40 million to 100 million and around 230,000 of the victims were British. Other countries were hit even more cruelly; 4 per cent of India’s population died, and in some parts of the United States bodies were piled high in the streets until mass graves could be dug, as nearly 675,000 people lost their lives and 25 per cent of the population contracted the virus. It was tragedy on a monumental scale.

Surely, when assessing the impact of the trauma of the 1914-18 conflict, one has to imagine how we would respond now to such a nightmare, bearing in mind at the hint of ‘bird’ or ‘swine’ flu we are on major alert. It is remarkable to think that the consequences of an illness with a higher body count than the Black Death, remains a footnote to the Great War.

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One Perfect Thursday Love Poem, with Dorothy Parker

keatsbabe:

I have been so busy lately; Shell Shocked Britain has, of course taken over my life as I come up to publication in October, but it has meant that I have paid less attention to my favourite poetry bloggers. Top of the list is David J. Beauman who has featured on my blog a few times and who kindly read my own poem ‘Life Force’ in his wonderful warm tones.

He has posted this poem for his Thursday Love Poem slot (he is from the States so I only get to see it on a Friday…) and it is by one of my favourites – Dorothy Parker. I love the way she subverts the genre, fooling the reader in two classically romantic stanzas only to re-focus the whole theme in the last, with her inimitable caustic wit.

Just had to share it with you!

Originally posted on The Dad Poet:

quotes-oh-life-is-a-glorious_5971-0We’re due for another Thursday Love poem feature, and so in the spirit of “Thursday,” a sort-of love poem by one of my poetic heroines, Edna St. Vincent Millay, I give you a piece from another New York mistress of words and wit, Dorothy Parker.

If you’re not familiar with the Thursday Love Poem feature, just go ahead and enjoy the poem below first, but then go back and click on that Thursday link in the first line of this post in order to get the original poem that inspired this irreverent tribute to love.

Like Vincent (as Millay liked to be called), Parker was both a poet and a social activist in the 1920’s New York literary scene. They were quite progressive ladies, though their poetry did not go the way of the Modernists, into ideas and abstractions, in the mid 30’s.

The Dorothy Parker…

View original 137 more words

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A Great War poem for August 2014: MCMXIV (1914) by Philip Larkin

largeAs the weeks fly by and publication of Shell Shocked Britain approaches, I have been turning to poetry in an (often vain) attempt to relax and clear my mind of proofs and tweets and the general organisation of the launch.  The poets of the Great War have, of course, been the focus of programmes about the war on television and radio. The work of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon et al is moving and descriptive of the horror of the trenches. They describe, angrily, their views of the establishment that sent young men to war, encouraging more and more to join up whilst they sat back in England, in apparent comfort. Poems such as Dulce et Decorum est by Owen and The General by Sassoon have framed the ways many people imagine what that war was like and have fed the myth of ‘lions led by donkeys’ so brilliantly exemplified by Blackadder Goes Forth.

imagesBut  I heard a reading of a very different type of poem this week, by a man born after the end of the First World War  – Philip Larkin. Having been unfit for active service in WWII due to poor eyesight, he was unfamiliar with the direct horrors of war, but he was a man who understood the power of the emotion present in ordinary lives. His expectation of life was low and he was something of a curmudgeon. But in the following poem, written 50 years after the Great War began, he looks back as we might do, 50 years on into a new century. As if inspired by an old photograph he describes those early, August days of the war and the queues of men, seemingly  in holiday mood waiting at the recruitment office as if they were going to a cricket or football match. The title is MCMXIV (1914); even those Roman numerals harking back to days long gone, as the four verses take as from the shops of the town to the big country houses via a countryside that seems remote from the coming carnage:

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;

And the countryside not caring
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheats’ restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word–the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

The very normality of the scenes depicted brings back all the research I have undertaken for  Shell Shocked. Millions of lives were affected by the war across every class and so few, in those early months, understood the reality of the war they were called to join. Larkin reminds us of those things that touch and fascinate us now – the nostalgia of the individual shops, the tins and packets emblazoned with brands long gone and the Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs world of the stately home. There are those ‘thousands of marriages’ that were celebrated by our grandparents and great grandparents. And there is that sense that the very fields  – ‘Shadowing Domesday lines’  and reflecting the poppy fields of France – were part of a history about to be thrust into the past; an old world.

I think it is a poem we should read over the coming month as the commemorations really begin and we look back, with Larkin, at our forbears  walking almost blindly into a carnage that stripped back the veneer of innocence and threw Britain into a century of total war and total change.

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Teaching the First World War – engaging imaginations with historic newspapers

qnscabijelvfu9dudepk_thumb‘Will Dismal Jimmy Look More Cheerful Today?’

So reads the headline above the Daily Sketch title on Monday September 27th 1915.

I have no idea what that means but it certainly draws me straight in! I have been lucky enough to be sent an example of one of the free First World War packs offered by Historic Newspapers,  the UK’s largest private archive of historical newspapers to educational institutions as the centenary commemorations begin in earnest.

The First World War newspaper book, called 1914-1919 As Reported At The Time, aims to engage with young people in a way that makes the history real, rather than an abstract idea which they feel they have no links with. Reports in the media that kids are already being ‘turned off’ by the Great War are surely greatly exaggerated. Many of the projects being run in local areas are incredibly creative and have no problem involving ages from the proverbial 8 to 80+, but schools sometimes experience greater problems. The curriculum doesn’t always allow for similar expressions of the many feelings the First World War can bring out in the young. Curiosity, fear, anger, laughter (yes there is a place for humour – the troops found courage in it) all these things can make the conflict come that little bit closer – safely of course.

So this booklet begins on September 27 1915 at the Battle of Loos with first reports of British and French soldiers “on the road to victory” and finishes with the end of the war on Monday November 11 1918. Much happens in between, with reports on Gallipoli, and on Edith Cavell. But I love the way this offers a peek into the wider social history of the time. The wonderful adverts for Maypole margarine; how Violette starring Edris Coombs was on twice nightly in Drury Lane and what could be found in the Christmas Parcels offered by Selfridges.  Herrings in tomato anyone?

Thomas Walker, of Historic Newspapers, has said:

“The book can be used to discuss the changing nature of conflict, the cooperation between countries, the shift of alliances and the lasting impact of the war on national, ethnic, cultural and religious issues.”

I think he is right, and it is FREE. If anyone asks me to review something on my blog they have to expect me to be honest, and the only complaint I could have about this book is that it leaves me – an adult writer about the war and its aftermath, wanting more. It is just enough for those who just need to be inspired to find out more.

Hard copies of the teaching packs are currently available to schools, universities, libraries and accredited education establishments, and individual PDF files can be ordered if digital format is preferred. Enquiries should be sent to Thomas Walker from Historic Newspapers at: Thomas.Walker@historic-newspapers.co.uk.

 

Posted in Book, Books, First World War, History, Reading, Shell Shocked Britain, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Writer’s Blog Tour – coming out of the attic to party….

blogI can be a real party pooper sometimes. I get asked to join in memes and round robin thingies and although I enjoy reading the blogs written by others I like to do it in my own time, and find out something I didn’t know already.  So although I was really pleased to be nominated for a large-scale writer’s blog tour by the inspirational Angela Buckley, (author of the fabulous ‘The Real Sherlock Holmes previously featured on my blog and master of Victorian detection over at victoriansupersleuth.com/) I was also worried about taking it on. Time, ideas etc are all very precious at the moment so I nearly said ‘thanks, but no thanks.’

But then I saw that I would be part of a growing international community of writers, working to introduce our blogs to a wider audience. Christine Findlay, Chair of Bookmark Blair in Perthshire, Scotland invited us to take part (see www.cfindlay.blogspot.com) The Writers’ Blog Tour is a great way to sample the work of new writers. It had already been round some writers I admire, and I was nominated alongside the lovely Rachel Hale over at The History Magpie and although I was tempted to stay in the kitchen with my head in a metaphorical box of cheap Chardonnay I decided to get out and mingle a bit.

So here I am – clutching a plate of nibbles somewhat nervously and clasping a tumbler in a shaky hand. Be nice to me and I promise I am not really a kill joy.

What am I working on?

Shell Shocked jacket high res jpegAt the moment I am in that nervous period just before publication of my book Shell Shocked Britain: The legacy of the First World War for Britain’s mental health‘, when proofs are read and indices compiled and the marketing really starts to build. As well as Shell Shocked I am also commissioned by Pen & Sword History to write two more social histories – Death, Disease & Dissection; The life of a surgeon apothecary in the early 19th century and another on the artists of the Great War. Both should be out in 2016/17.

At the same time I dabble in fiction – ghost stories and cosy crime..

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Hmmm, a tough one this. As someone who has experienced mental ill-health, I do try to look with a fresh perspective on periods of history that would, if they happened today, cause widespread and lasting trauma. In Shell Shocked, the Great War is seen as an extraordinary and terrible period that left emotional scars on Britain as a whole, as well as causing thousands of individual tragedies. In Death etc I will look at how the horrors of 19th century medicine co-existed alongside a great Romantic movement and great advances in science. In Artists etc I will examine the work of great painters, sculptors, musicians and writers to see how it has affected our memories of the conflict. We are all different, and we respond to events in various ways. I always try to tell a story that encourages us to look back into our histories with compassion and greater understanding.

I suspect many of us would say the same, however.

Why do I write what I do?

See above. Some people’s stories just need to be heard and I am passionate about being their voice. I do such a lot of research that suggests that despite a mass of evidence provided by historical events, society as a whole simply does not learn.

Mickleden Valley, my Lake District space...

Mickleden Valley, my Lake District space…

How does my writing process work?

It frequently doesn’t! I can research forever, in primary and secondary sources, and enjoy it but actually writing? The demon procrastination is my nemesis. Sudden urges to wash up/water the garden/exercise (OK, not the last one…) frequently overwhelm me. I need to be somewhere well away from home and all its distractions. Writing Shell Shocked I dumped myself on in-laws and friends and took myself away to Cumbria (my spiritual home, I like to think) where I can just write and write…

Finally, I want to thank you for stopping here on the tour and introduce you to two other writers who I admire and encourage you to seek out their blogs and websites and learn a little more about their work.

Michelle J Holman

Based in London, Michelle is a researcher and freelance writer specialising in 18th century entertainment. She is the author of the Abraham Adcock blog at www.abrahamadcock.com, a short story, The Guinea Ghost, and a collection of poetry and prose focusing on living with mental illness entitled The Sea of Conscience. She is currently working on her first novel.

Beth Webb

Beth lives near Taunton in Somerset with two disreputable moggies who rule her life. She has published books for young children (Junkyard Dragon) and older children (The Dragons of Kilve and The Fleabag Stories), earning great reviews worldwide. She also teaches budding young writers and you can find out more about how she works on her website www.bethwebb.co.uk

 

Posted in Book, Books, Family History, First World War, Guest posts, History, Shell Shocked Britain, Work, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Sinking of the RMS Tayleur – author Gill Hoffs on how Victorian corsetry contributed to a tragedy…

Sinking of RMS Tayleur - Gill Hoffs - hi res imageI have been really lucky with the books I have been asked to review in recent weeks. I thoroughly enjoyed The Real Sherlock Holmes by Angela Buckley and now can honestly say I have spent three sunny days gripped by “The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic‘” by Gill Hoffs. (Pen & Sword, 2014) I can heartily recommend it for the detailed research Gill has done into the Victorian period,  combined with her skills as a true storyteller. It is a tragic tale, beautifully told, with a respect for the victims that doesn’t preclude a thrilling description of a horrific shipwreck.

So I am delighted to host a guest post from Gill on my blog today. As she researched the book, Gill was curious to find out why only three women and three children survived out of over 170 while more than half of the men on board managed to escape the sinking ship. Here she interviews one of the many people who helped her research 

Jennifer Garside

Jennifer Garside

When researching a particular period or person, it can be useful to find someone who’s essentially carried out the work for you in advance and has a passion for the subject. I needed to know about British clothing in the 1850s, and why the fashions of the day contributed to the deaths of at least a hundred women in one shipwreck alone. Luckily Jennifer Garside, a motorbike-riding, corset-wearing, broadsword-fighting businesswoman, runs Wyte Phantom Corsetry and Clothing (specialising in neo-Victorian designs) and agreed to help. Jennifer demonstrated to me using samples, contemporary accounts and illustrations, how heavy and restrictive the women’s outfits would have been on board the Tayleur, and how that influenced their survival when the ship wrecked. As is often the way, each answer led to yet more questions, including some about Jennifer herself.

What came first for you: the interest in sewing, history, or re-enactments? How did you get into re-enactments and corsetry?

I was always crafty as a child, my mother taught me to sew and use a sewing machine, and as far as I can remember I had a fascination with pretty historical dresses. My grandmother had a button tin with pictures of Victorian ladies round the outside; I loved to play with it both for the images on the tin and the amazing buttons inside. Re-enactment came later; it wasn’t until I was at university that I discovered a group and found it was something I could actually get involved in.

I blame my parents for the re-enactments. As a child, I loved to explore castles, and they took me to see a joust when I was about 8, and I decided I wanted to have a go! At University, I found both a re-enactment group, and a HEMA group (Historic European Martial Arts) and started to study swordsmanship. The corsetry was probably born out of my love of the beautiful hourglass Victorian dresses. I have always been small, but when I was about 18-20, I had a very boyish figure not the curves I wanted. I discovered corsetry and as I was a student and couldn’t afford to buy a good corset, thought I would try making them. It took a long time to teach myself as there weren’t the resources there are available now.

How do you source vintage designs?

Fashions of 1854

Fashions of 1854

There are a lot of good resources now for vintage patterning, you can still get hold of original patterns from the 1900s (I have some amazing 40s and 50s patterns that I picked up from ebay and junk shops!), as you get earlier, there are reprints of Victorian and Edwardian patterns from magazines that are reasonably easy to get hold of and lots of books available detailing construction. The earlier you get, the harder it is to find original material to study, but by studying pictures and the material that is available, it is possible to work out how these pieces were probably made. Where possible though, the best way I find to learn is to look at extant garments, most museums have the facility to let you study pieces in their collection if you contact them, and there is so much more you can learn by looking at something in person than by looking at a photo.

What are the hazards of your work?

CAD – Cat assisted design. My ginger mog has an annoying tendency to try to get involved at the most awkward times! Also, most of my work is carried out on a 1930’s Singer sewing machine that will sew through just about anything, including fingers as I have learnt the hard way.

Do you find you notice costuming over story and acting in period dramas?

Yes and no, if the story is good and I can lose myself in it, then I can forgive most things other than the totally glaringly obvious, but I will often find once I have noticed something I can’t concentrate on the plot as the error keeps niggling at me!

What is the one key issue you think researchers need to bear in mind when thinking about clothing in the past?

I think you have to understand somewhat the culture, mindset and conditions people were living in. It is only relatively recently that we have had mass production and global communication, therefore in the past although there would be fashions, there would be a lot more geographical variation in styles and each garment would be individually made. Clothes in any period of history say something about the wearer, be that status, profession or any of a myriad of other things.

How has engaging in broadsword fighting and similar activities improved your understanding of the practical requirements of outfits throughout history?

It’s not just the fighting, by wearing the clothes of a certain period you get a better understanding of how a person could move and how they would stand or sit. This may seem unimportant, but if you want to really understand the past I think this really gives you an insight. A simple example would be the footwork when learning to use the smallsword, the weapon itself looks similar to a modern fencing blade, but looking at the original treatises the steps and lunges tend to be much smaller than in modern fencing, you discover the probable reason why when you try fencing in period footwear with smooth leather soles!

Who are your favourite female fighters?

Jennifer Garside 2This is a difficult one too. All throughout history there are examples of often unnamed women fighting alongside their male counterparts, normally only uncovered as women after death or injury. I could list hundreds of inspirational female fighters, but I’ll limit myself to two from two historical extremes. The earliest known European fencing treatise is Royal Armouries MS.I.33 or the Tower Manuscript, this dates from about 1300 and shows a system of combat with sword and buckler (a small round shield). In the latter part of the manuscript, in place of one of the two male figures we see earlier in the text, we have a female figure referred to as Walpurgis. While there is still debate as to why a female figure is used in the text, I feel that her presence maybe indicates that females fighting wasn’t such an unusual occurrence as we might otherwise believe. Travelling forwards 600 years we have Edith Garrud, trained in Bartitsu (probably one of the first ‘mixed martial arts’), she in turn trained The Bodyguard, a group of about 25 women whose task it was to keep the leaders of the militant Suffragette movement out of the hands of the police. She is immortalised in a lovely 1910 Punch cartoon showing her fighting off a group of policemen.

Thank you for all your help with my research, and for sharing so much information about your enviable life!

And thank you Gill – it is a great book and I hope to be there at one of your entertaining talks before too long!

The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: the Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’ (Pen and Sword, 2014), is out now – see http://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/ for further details. Contact Gill at gillhoffs@hotmail.co.uk, @GillHoffs or through http://gillhoffs.wordpress.com.
For more information about Wyte Phantom Corsetry and Clothing, visit http://www.rosenkavalier.co.uk/wytephantom/wytephantom4.htm, call 0774 686 4354, or email wyte_phantom@hotmail.com.

 

Posted in Author interviews, Book, Books, Family History, Guest posts, History, Reading, Victorians, Work | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Shell shock on film: myth or reality?

shell shockWhen I began researching and writing Shell Shocked Britain I watched the grainy, black and white film footage of shell shocked soldiers readily found on YouTube. They show a number of British soldiers filmed whilst undergoing treatment at The Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley , near Southampton or at Seale Hayne Hospital in Devon. In one episode of Jeremy Paxman’s documentary series Britain’s Great War a brief extract was used as he spoke, briefly, on the subject outside Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland (which doesn’t actually feature in any of the footage). Entitled War Neurosis 1917, the film was shot over a period of eight months and is the only surviving footage of the effect of shell shock on British soldiers in the Great War.

Arthur Hurst

Arthur Hurst

The films were directed by Major Arthur Hurst, who had volunteered for service with the Royal Army Medical Corps having established a neurology department at Guy’s Hospital in London. He went to France to see the work doctors there were doing with men diagnosed as suffering from ‘hysteria’ and was able to travel on to witness the horrors at Gallipoli, before coming back to England to put new treatments he had learned into practice.

Pathé cameramen were used to film at both hospitals and the work they highlighted led to Hurst being lauded as a miracle worker in the press. But was he simply a good self-publicist who hid himself away in the Devon countryside to ensure his methods were difficult to verify? As I delved deeper and spoke to 21st century experts in military psychiatry, I began to view the films very differently.

Hurst’s film, whilst supposedly offering itself as a tool for training other clinical staff, is a masterpiece of promotion and marketing. One can watch it as a piece of social history, but as documentary evidence of medical treatment it seems exploitative and disturbing. Among the men filmed was Private Percy Meek, a 23-year-old man from Norfolk, who joined the army in 1913. First wounded in the thigh in May 1915, he was treated and returned to the Front later that year and served without further incident until February 1916. Hurst’s lengthy report on Meek’s case explains that the young man was stationed in a trench subjected to a period of continuous bombardment by German mortars. As the noise and anxiety became overwhelming, Meek’s comrades had to prevent him from going ‘over the top’ in panic, to attack the German position.

We first see Meek sitting, like a baby, in a straight-backed, wooden wheelchair undergoing an examination of his rigid ankles for the benefit of the camera. Yet over a period of months his voice and understanding gradually returned, and, after transferring to Seale Hayne in April 1918, his physical recovery quickened and the film shows a much healthier looking Private Meek, wearing the uniform hospital blues and running up and down the steps in front of the building. The film shows his recovery to be so nearly perfect that by June 1918 we see him supervising fellow patients in a basket weaving shop at the hospital.

Other patients include Private Preston, aged 19, who reacts to the word ‘bombs’ by running for cover under his hospital bed. Private Ross Smith has a facial spasm affecting his ears and head with violent twitches, which disappear under hypnosis, only to return with renewed violence when he wakes. Private Reid, aged 32, was buried by debris from an exploding shell and, though without physical wounds, he has become unable to move; the film shows him returned to full mobility and able to work on the hospital farm.

The simple peace of the rolling Devon countryside offered solace to the damaged men. Unlike some other hospitals, the staff at Seale Hayne refused to bully a patient into submitting to the will of the doctor and the army. Hurst was keen to ensure the dignity of the men was maintained, with no pressure to get them back to the Front at all costs. In some respects his treatments resemble present day treatments for moderate depression and anxiety. But to the frustration of his peers, Hurst would never elaborate on his methods and there were few witnesses to his successful treatment.

hurstbookHurst only detailed his methods as the Second World War entered its final stages, in his book Medical Diseases of War:

Directly the patient is admitted the sister encourages him to believe that he will be cured as soon as the doctor has time to see him…The medical officer …tells him as a matter of course he will be cured the next day. The patient is made to understand that any treatment he has already received has prepared the way, so that nothing now remains but a properly directed effort on his part for a complete recovery to take place.

This now appears to be a deception, a practice widely used as a ‘cure’ for shell shock and it was not considered an unethical practice. Fake operations to cure deafness were staged, going so far as to anaesthetise and cut patients who had been told the procedure would cure them. Frederick Mott at the Maudsley Hospital recognised that, as the war progressed towards a conclusion, the best ‘cure’ was to assure a patient that they would never be sent back to the Front.

It is hard to assess which parts of Hurst’s film are what would now be termed a ‘reconstruction’ and which are genuine. He certainly never tells the viewer. The facts of Private Meek’s trauma are undisputed, but the film, shot in just eight months, documents a recovery that took over two years. It was a similar situation with other patients on screen. Men had been asked to re-enact their symptoms, which, as they were apparently lacking a proper consciousness as they experienced them for real is worrying. Audiences, still unused to seeing ‘moving pictures’ would have taken them at face value. People still do.

Reports in the press, from ‘honest’ witnesses describe how Hurst’s cures could take just a few minutes. The descriptions of a paralysed and dumb man being ‘cured’ within 10 minutes, to the point where, simply by coughing, he can be encouraged to sing the whole of ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’, appear somewhat suspicious. Hurst and his team claimed that in 100 consecutive, successful treatments, they were curing, within days, men who had on average been treated in other hospitals for 11 months prior to admission. Ninety-six per cent were treated and cured in just one sitting, at an average of 54 minutes per patient. Of the four cases that required longer, all took less than four weeks. Despite these claims, it is almost impossible to establish what percentage of the men treated later relapsed.

So was Dr Hurst actually ‘a bit of a fraud’, as he has been described to me by a psychiatrist? Watch the film and see what you think. He was not a man who inflicted unnecessary pain on his patients, as other doctors did, and men responded well to the environment around the hospital. But these films are so often shown as ‘fact’ that his contribution to the study of the subject must be questioned.

Arthur Hurst has offered us a glimpse of the physical symptoms the shell shocked of the Great War experienced. But more than that? How far does the knowledge that he asked men to live through the horrors again affect our views of his work? His work was not miraculous and certainly flawed – but fraudulent? I am still unsure….

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